NASA launched its latest mission to Mars on Thursday morning, with a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the spacecraft into orbit and beginning a seven-month journey to the red planet.
The rocket is carrying the rover Perseverance, which will be the ninth robot that NASA has landed on Mars. About the size of a small car, Perseverance weighs about 2,300 pounds and is the largest and most advanced rover the U.S. space agency has ever sent to Mars. Among other firsts that NASA will look to achieve with Perseverance, the rover is carrying a small aircraft named Ingenuity.
"For the first time ever, we're going to fly a helicopter on Mars," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters ahead of the launch.
Also known as the Mars 2020 mission, the program cost $2.4 billion to develop, with the agency budgeting another $300 million for operational costs once the rover lands.
While much of NASA's workforce has been working from home since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the agency's leaders identified the Mars 2020 mission as one of its highest priorities for this year. Scientists and engineers worked under guidelines such as social distancing to ensure the mission launched during this year's Mars window, a limited period of time every couple of years when missions from Earth can reach the red planet.
The rover is set to attempt to land on Mars in February, aiming for the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater near the Martian equator. One of Perseverance's goals is to search for the existence of microscopic life on Mars, as scientists believe the Jezero Crater used to hold a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe in California. The rover is the first to carry a sample-gathering system to Mars, which will create packages of soil samples that NASA hopes to one day return to Earth.
Perseverance also features 23 cameras, more than any previous mission. In addition to a high-definition view of the rover's landing, the cameras will beam back imagery of the Martian landscape and Perseverance's discoveries along the way.
The rover also has three small silicon chips, carrying the names of 11 million people who virtually signed their names to be carried along on the mission.
Perseverance was built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with Lockheed Martin building the aeroshell capsule that will protect the rover during its descent through the harsh Mars atmosphere.
It has thick aluminium wheels and is powered by a nuclear generator, which converts heat from the decay of plutonium into electricity. Perseverance also has a nearly seven foot long robotic arm that has five joints, which will be used to assist the rover's exploration.
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter aims to be the first aircraft to ever fly on another planet. Ingenuity is a test, as the thin Martian atmosphere makes it challenging to create enough lift for an Earth-like aircraft to fly.
Ingenuity weighs just four pounds and its main body is just about the size of softball, sitting beneath a set of very light rotor blades made of carbon fiber. It was tested in a vacuum chamber at NASA's JPL, where engineers simulated a Martian-like atmosphere.
The small helicopter will bet set down on the surface by Perseverance after the rover lands, with short test flights planned.
"This feels like one of those Wright Brothers moments in aviation history," NASA aerospace engineer Carlos Malpica said in a statement.
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