Story by AFP
Nasa’s next-generation Mars rover Perseverance blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Thursday atop an Atlas 5 rocket on a $2.4 billion mission to search for traces of potential past life on Earth’s planetary neighbour.
The robotic rover — a car-sized six-wheeled vehicle carrying seven scientific instruments — also is scheduled to deploy a small helicopter on Mars and try out equipment for future human missions to the fourth planet from the sun. Its arrival at Mars is planned for Feb 18 at the site of an ancient river delta.
It soared into the sky from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:50am under clear, sunny and warm conditions carried by an Atlas 5 rocket from the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance. The launch took place after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) facility in Pasadena, California, where its mission engineers were located was rattled by an earthquake.
JPL mission controllers established its first communication signal with the spacecraft some 90 minutes after liftoff, an affirmation that prompted applause and cheers in the California control room.
This marked NASA’s ninth journey to the Martian surface.
“It’s really kind of a key of a whole bunch of new research that we’re doing that is focused on the question … is there life out there?” the space agency’s science division chief Thomas Zurbuchen said on a NASA live stream after the launch.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Mike Watkins quipped about the California quake: “It was just the Earth being excited about going to Mars. It was a very minor event. Everything’s fine, and we’re on our way to Mars.”
Perseverance is due to land at the base of an 820-foot-deep crater called Jezero, site of a former lake and water system from 3.5 billion years ago that scientists suspect could bear evidence of potential past microbial life.
Scientists have long debated whether Mars — once a much more hospitable place than it is today — ever harboured life. Water is considered a key ingredient for life, and Mars billions of years ago had lots of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate outpost.
According to a late night report, the spaceship developed technical problems hours into the flight and was running on essential systems only, the agency said.
When a vessel enters safe mode, it shuts down all but essential systems until it receives new commands from mission control. “Right now, the Mars 2020 mission is completing a full health assessment on the spacecraft and is working to return the spacecraft to a nominal configuration for its journey to Mars,” added Nasa.