NASA just launched its Mars alien-hunting Perseverance rover into deep space with a drone tucked under its belly

Joe Skipper/ReutersOne of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rockets propels NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover to space from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on July 30, 2020.
  • NASA’s new Mars rover, Perseverance, successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Thursday at 7:50 a.m. ET.
  • If Perseverance survives its seven-month journey to Mars, the robot will search the planet for signs of alien life and test technologies that humans will need to survive on future interplanetary missions.
  • Perseverance will also take the first HD video of a Mars landing, drill the first Martian rock samples for return to Earth, and deliver the first interplanetary helicopter.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

NASA’s nuclear-powered Perseverance rover thundered off Earth early Thursday morning and began a seven-month journey toward Mars.

The SUV-sized robot and its rocket-powered landing device sat packed into the top of a 197-foot Atlas V rocket, which lifted off from at Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 7:50 a.m. ET. As the rocket ascended toward space, it jettisoned four boosters strapped to its core stage, then shed its pointed clamshell-like fairing, which protected Perseverance while it careened through Earth’s atmosphere. The core booster fell away as the rocket’s upper stage continued on, giving the spacecraft a final push toward Mars.

Just under 58 minutes after launch, the spacecraft popped off the rocket’s upper stage and slipped into deep space, kicking off its solitary journey to the red planet.

“We have a space mission. We’re in touch with the spacecraft and everything is nominal,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said during a live NASA TV broadcast just minutes before Perseverance deployed.

He said of watching the launch: “It’s like punching a hole in the sky, getting off the cosmic shore of Earth, and wading out there into the cosmic ocean. Every time it gets me.”

The robot successfully phoned home to Earth after it deployed, but mission managers said an issue with an antenna on Earth prevented NASA from immediately confirming whether or Perseverance is operating normally. (Though they suspect the spacecraft is healthy.)

If Perseverance survives its cruise through deep space, then a daunting seven-minute landing, the $US2.4 billion rover will scan and drill Martian soil for signs of alien life, release the first interplanetary drone from its belly, and test technologies that humans will need to survive on the red planet.

“Is there life out there? We have, for 20 years, learned about the environment of Mars and are ready to ask that,” Zurbuchen said. “For the first time in decades, [an] astrobiology mission? We’re ready for it.”

A half-year voyage to tee up a harrowing descent

Mars rover perseverance helicoper ingenuityNASA/JPL-CaltechAn artist’s illustration shows NASA’s Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.

The momentum from the launch and a big boost from Earth’s rotation should carry the spacecraft over 314 million miles to reach Mars and attempt a landing on February 18. And it won’t be easy.

“The Mars atmosphere is almost the worst of all worlds,” Zurbuchen said, noting the air’s too thin to use either parachutes or rockets alone to get a big payload to the ground – so it must use both. “It makes [landing] 10 times harder.”

Mars perseverance rover entry descent landing jetpack nasaNASA/JPL-CaltechThis artist’s concept shows the SkyCrane system lowering NASA’s Curiosity rover to the Martian surface.

Perseverance will hit the Martian atmosphere at about 13,000 mph. To slow down, it will use a heat shield and then a parachute. Once the spacecraft is travelling about 170 mph and a mile above the Martian surface, the aeroshell should drop the rover and an attached jetpack, called the SkyCrane, in free-fall.

SkyCrane will rocket the rover just above the ground before lowering it on cables like a robotic marionette doll. When Perseverance touches the surface, the cables will detach, SkyCrane will fly away, and the rover and its helicopter will begin their unprecedented missions.

Though it sounds unlikely, the system worked before in 2012 with the landing of NASA’s almost identical-looking Curiosity rover (which is still exploring Mars)

“When people look at it, it looks crazy. That’s a very natural thing. Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy,” Adam Steltzner, chief engineer of the Perseverance mission, said in a 2012 NASA-JPL video about Curiosity’s identical entry, descent, and landing sequence. “It is the result of reasoned engineering thought. But it still looks crazy.”

NASA hopes to land Perseverance in Jezero crater (below), an ancient river delta that could harbour traces of alien life.

Nasa mars 2020 rover landing site jezero crater labelledNASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/JHU-APLNASA will attempt to land its Mars 2020 nuclear-powered rover in Jezero Crater, where the space agency will collect its first Martian soil samples for a future rocket launch to Earth.

The rover is programmed to search for those traces – ancient rocks containing chemical signatures that only life would leave behind – and prepare several samples for a return mission to Earth, which has yet to launch.

“This is the first time in history when NASA has dedicated a mission to what we call astrobiology: the search for life – either maybe now, or ancient life – on another world,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a press briefing ahead of the launch.

Perseverance is also designed to kick off a series of other firsts that could change space exploration forever.

The first round-trip Mars mission

Mars sample returnNASA/JPL-CaltechThis artist concept of the proposed NASA Mars Sample Return mission shows the launch of the martian sample back toward Earth.

With its new rover, NASA plans to begin the years-long process of looking for signs of alien life and sending potential evidence back to Earth.

Since Jezero Crater is so deep and ancient, rocks containing the chemical signatures of ancient life could be sitting near its surface.

A special arm of the Perseverance rover is designed to drill cores from those rocks and cache them on the planet’s surface. In 2026, NASA plans to launch another rover to retrieve those samples and launch them towards a spacecraft that would carry them back to Earth. That would complete the first ever round-trip mission to Mars.

The first interplanetary helicopter

Mars helicopter ingenuity flight nasa gifNASA/JPL-CaltechAn animation of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter exploring the Martian surface.

About two months after it lands, Perseverance is set to drop a small helicopter from its belly.

NASA has programmed the helicopter, named Ingenuity, to demonstrate the first powered flight ever conducted on another planet. That’s no easy feat, since the Martian atmosphere has just 1% of the density of Earth’s atmosphere. The helicopter’s light weight (4 pounds), high-speed carbon-fibre rotors, and solar panels will help it lift itself and conduct up to five test flights.

Ingenuity is just a technological demonstration, but it could kick off a new approach to exploring other planets.

“In the future, it could transform how we do planetary science on these other worlds, and eventually be a scout so that we can figure out where exactly do we need to send our robots,” Bridenstine said in a briefing on Monday.

He added that both Ingenuity and Perseverance will record video of the helicopter flights.

The first high-definition video of a Mars landing

Mars 2020 rover SuperCamNASA/JPL-CaltechIn this image taken June 25, 2019, engineers install the SuperCam instrument on Mars 2020’s rover. This image was taken in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

For the first time, NASA plans to film the entire landing of a Mars rover in high definition using six off-the-shelf cameras and a microphone.

“Those cameras will be taking high-definition video of the spacecraft during entry, descent, and landing activity. So we should be able to watch this big parachute inflate supersonically, we should be able to watch the rover deploy and touch down on the surface,” Matt Wallace, the deputy project manager for Perseverance, said in the briefing. “This is going to be very exciting. It’s the first time that we have ever been able to see a spacecraft landing on another planet.”

Mars 2020 rover head illustration nasaNASAAn illustration of the Mars 2020 rover’s main imaging instrument.

Perseverance will carry a second microphone for use on the surface. If both devices work, they will enable NASA to record the first bonafide audio of Mars, including gusts of wind, the rover’s wheels rolling over soil and rocks, the sound of drilling, and more.

Previous Mars missions also brought microphones with them, but as Nancy Atkinson wrote for The Planetary Society, those were a “huge let-down” – they either failed or never activated.

The first tests of Martian astronaut technologies

Mars human exploration settlement habitat astronauts martianJPL/NASAArtist’s concept of astronauts and human habitats on Mars.

Five small pieces of spacesuit material, including a piece of helmet visor, will travel to Mars aboard Perseverance. One of the robot’s instrument will track the materials’ reaction to the Martian environment, collecting data to inform future Mars-spacesuit designers.

The rover will also test a device that could convert carbon dioxide into oxygen for future astronauts to breath.

About 95% of the red planet’s atmosphere is CO2, so successfully turning it to oxygen would be a big win for future Martian settlements. Abundant oxygen would also help astronauts produce new rocket fuel for the journey home.

Using technologies like this, NASA ultimately aims to send astronauts to Mars and set up a settlement there. (Elon Musk, who is developing a spaceship that might be able to carry people to the red planet, hopes to put boots there in 2024.)

This story has been updated with new information.

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