NASA’s Perseverance rover to look for signs of ancient life on Mars

Photo: EPA A full size model of the real Mars 2020 Perseverance, displayed at the press site at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA, 30 July.

The biggest, most sophisticated Mars rover ever built, a car-size vehicle bristling with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers, was launched on Thursday as part of a long-range project to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth to be analyzed for evidence of ancient life, news wires reported.

NASA’s Perseverance rode a mighty Atlas V rocket into a clear morning sky in the world’s third and final Mars launch of the summer. China and the UAE got a head start last week, but all three missions should reach the red planet in February after a journey of seven months and 480 million kilometers.

The launch went off on time at 7:50 a.m. despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake 20 minutes before liftoff that shook Southern California, the site of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the rover mission.

The plutonium-powered, six-wheeled rover will drill down and collect tiny geological specimens that will be brought home in about 2031 in a sort of interplanetary relay race involving multiple spacecraft and countries. The overall cost: more than $8bn. In addition to addressing the life-on-Mars question, the mission will yield lessons that could pave the way for the arrival of astronauts as early as the 2030s.

If all goes well, the rover will descend to the Martian surface on 18 February 2021. Perseverance is carrying 25 cameras and a pair of microphones that will enable Earthlings to vicariously tag along.

The rover will store 15-gram rock samples in dozens of super-sterilized titanium tubes.It also will release a mini helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet, and test out other technology to prepare the way for future astronauts, including equipment for extracting oxygen from Mars’ thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere.

The plan is for NASA and the European Space Agency to launch a dune buggy in 2026 to fetch the rock samples, along with a rocket ship that will put the specimens into orbit around Mars. Then another spacecraft will capture the orbiting samples and bring them home.

To definitively answer the profound question of whether life exists, or ever existed, beyond Earth, the samples must be analyzed by the best electron microscopes and other instruments, which are too big to fit on a spacecraft.

Two other NASA landers are also operating on Mars: 2018′s InSight and 2012′s Curiosity rover. Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three from the US, two from Europe and one from India.

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