Nasa’s latest Mars rover Perseverance launched yesterday on an astrobiology mission to look for signs of ancient microbial life — and to fly a helicopter-drone on another world for the first time.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket took off on schedule at 7:50 am (1150 GMT) from Cape Canaveral, Florida, despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake that rattled Nasa’s Jet Propulsion laboratory in California that manages the mission minutes earlier.
The first stage separation took place a few minutes later and Perserverance prepared for a second burn to put it on a trajectory toward Mars.
If all goes to plan, Perseverance will reach the Red Planet on February 18, 2021, becoming the fifth rover to complete the voyage since 1997.
All so far have been American. China launched its first Mars rover last week, which should arrive by May 2021.
By next year, Mars could therefore have three active rovers, including Nasa’s Curiosity, which has traversed 23 kilometers (14 miles) of the Red Planet since it landed in 2012.
Perseverance is an improved version of Curiosity.
It is faster, with a tougher set of six wheels, has more computing power, and can autonomously navigate 200 meters per day.
About the size of a small SUV, it weighs a metric ton, has 19 cameras, and two microphones — which scientists hope will be the first to record sound on Mars.
It has a two-meter-long robotic arm, and is powered by a small nuclear battery.
Once on the surface, Nasa will deploy the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter — a 1.8 kilogram (four pound) aircraft that will attempt to fly in an atmosphere that is only one percent the density of Earth’s.
The idea is to lay down a proof of concept that could one day revolutionize planetary exploration, since rovers can only cover a few dozen kilometers in their whole lifespans and are vulnerable to sand dunes and other obstacles higher than 40 centimeters (15 inches).