NASA's latest Mars rover Perseverance launched Thursday 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.The first stage separation took place a few minutes later, and about an hour after launch the spaceship carrying Perseverance separated from the upper-stage Centaur rocket, bound for 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) since it landed in 2012.
The launch also took place despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the United States harder than any country.
NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said this made it even more important that mission went ahead as planned."We have a history of doing amazing things in the most challenging times, and this is this is no different," he said, shortly before take-off.
Perseverance is an improved version of Curiosity -- faster, smarter, and capable of autonomously navigating 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 little 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.
Another goal is to help pave the way for future human missions -- and a major obstacle is planet's 96 percent carbon dioxide atmosphere.
The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, is a car battery sized device carried on board Perseverance that converts carbon dioxide from the air into oxygen with a process called electrolysis.
According to MIT, which co-developed MOXIE, the plan is to perform at least 10 oxygen-producing runs throughout the mission under as many different seasonal and environmental conditions as possible.
But Perseverance's primary mission is to scour the planet for evidence of ancient life forms.
Scientists believe that more than three billion years ago the planet was much warmer than today and was covered in rivers and lakes, conditions which could have led to simple microbial life.
Perseverance's drill will collect around 30 intact rock cores and place them in test tubes, to be collected by a future joint US-European mission.
Indisputable proof of past life on Mars will most likely not be confirmed, if it exists, until these samples are analyzed next decade, according to NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen.
"What we are looking for is likely very primitive life, we are not looking for advanced life forms that might be things like bones or fern fossils," explained project scientist Ken Farley.
NASA has chosen the Jezero crater as its landing site, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator.
Between three and four billion years ago, a river flowed there into a large body of water.
Scientists believe the ancient river delta could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.
More than 350 geologists, geochemists, astrobiologists, atmospheric specialists and other scientists from around the world are taking part in the mission.
It is set to last at least two years, but probably much longer given the endurance shown by previous rovers.