Perseverance robot launches to detect life on Red Planet
July 31, 2020 6:04 am
The US space agency’s Perseverance robot has left Earth on a mission to try to detect life on Mars.
The one-tonne, six-wheeled rover was launched out of Florida by an Atlas rocket on a path to intercept the Red Planet in February next year.
When it lands, the Nasa robot will also gather rock and soil samples to be sent home later this decade.
Perseverance is the third mission despatched to Mars inside 11 days, after launches by the UAE and China.
Lift-off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station occurred at 07:50 local time (12:50 BST; 11:50 GMT).
Nasa made this mission one of its absolute priorities when the coronavirus crisis struck, establishing special work practices to ensure Perseverance met its launch deadline.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s a challenge, it’s very stressful, but look – the teams made it happen and I’ll tell you, we could not be more proud of what this integrated team was able to pull off here, so it’s very, very exciting,” Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters.
Perseverance is being targeted at a more-than 40km-wide, near-equatorial bowl called Jezero Crater.
Satellite images suggest this held a lake billions of years ago.
Scientists say the rocks that formed in this environment stand a good chance of retaining evidence of past microbial activity – if ever that existed on the planet.
Perseverance will spend at least one Martian year (equivalent to roughly two Earth years) investigating the possibility.
Unlike the previous four rovers Nasa has sent to Mars, its new machine is equipped to directly detect life – either current or in fossilised form.
But any evidence it uncovers will almost certainly have its sceptics, which is why researchers want to bring whatever Perseverance finds back home for the deeper analysis only sophisticated laboratories on Earth can perform.
The rover will therefore package its most interesting rock discoveries in small tubes. An elaborate mix of future missions will then launch later this decade to try to retrieve these samples.