NASA’s fifth and finest Mars rover Perseverance lifts off successfully in spite of tremors, delays, COVID-19 lockdown

The launch went off smoothly, despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake 20 minutes before liftoff that shook the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The biggest, most sophisticated Mars rover ever built — a car-size vehicle bristling with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers — blasted off for the red planet today, 30 July 2020. It was part of the US effort to ambitious, long-range project to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth to be analyzed for evidence of ancient life.

NASA’s Perseverance rode the mighty Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket, lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 5.20 pm IST.

This was the third and final Mars launch globally in the month of July. China and the United Arab Emirates got a head start last week, but all three missions plan to reach their destination by February 2021, after a journey of seven months and 480 million kilometres.

 NASA’s fifth and finest Mars rover Perseverance lifts off successfully in spite of tremors, delays, COVID-19 lockdown

Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars. Ingenuity, a technology experiment, will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. Perseverance will arrive at Mars' Jezero Crater with Ingenuity attached to its belly. Image credit: NASA

The launch went off smoothly,  despite a 4.2-magnitude earthquake 20 minutes before liftoff that shook the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Ninety minutes after lift-off, JPL mission controllers established its first communication signal with the spacecraft.

“The spacecraft is in good health and on its way to Mars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote on Twitter, some 90 minutes after liftoff.

Round trip to another world

The plutonium-powered, six-wheeled rover will drill down and collect tiny geological specimens that will be brought home in about 2031 in a sort of interplanetary relay race involving multiple spacecraft and countries. The overall cost: over $8 billion.

NASA’s science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen pronounced the launch the start of “humanity’s first round trip to another planet.”

“Oh, I loved it, punching a hole in the sky, right? Getting off the cosmic shore of our Earth, wading out there in the cosmic ocean,” he said. “Every time, it gets me.”

In addition to addressing the life-on-Mars question, the mission will yield lessons that could pave the way for the arrival of astronauts as early as the 2030s.

“There’s a reason we call the robot Perseverance. Because going to Mars is hard,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said just before liftoff. “In this case, it’s harder than ever before because we’re doing it in the midst of a pandemic.”

The US, the only country to safely put a spacecraft on Mars, is seeking its ninth successful landing on the planet, which has proved to be the Bermuda Triangle of space exploration, with more than half of the world’s missions there burning up, crashing or otherwise ending in failure.

The pandemic and some technical difficulties had delayed the launch of the rover twice. Launch controllers wore masks and sat spaced apart at the Cape Canaveral control centre because of the coronavirus outbreak, which kept hundreds of scientists and other team members away from Perseverance’s liftoff.

“We have left the building. We are on our way to Mars,” Perseverance’s chief engineer, Adam Steltzner, said from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“That was overwhelming. Overall, just ‘Wow!’” said Alex Mather, the 13-year-old Virginia schoolboy who proposed the name Perseverance in a NASA competition and watched the launch in person with his parents.

Off to treacherous, unexplored territory on Mars

This isn't the only Mars mission heading to the Red Planet as of this month. The United Arab Emirates successfully sent off its Hope probe on 19 July and China launched its own orbiter and rover on 22 July. All three missions are scheduled to reach Mars in February 2021, with Perseverance aiming to land on 18 February 2021.

If all goes well, the rover will descend to the Martian surface on 18 Feb 2021, in what NASA calls 'seven minutes of terror'. These seven minutes are the crucial window of time in which the craft goes from 19,300 kmph to a complete stop, with no human intervention whatsoever. Perseverance is packing 25 cameras and a pair of microphones that will enable Earthlings to vicariously tag along for the touchdown, and everything thereafter.

Perseverance will aim for treacherous unexplored territory – the Jezero Crater, riddled with boulders, cliffs, dunes and possibly rocks bearing the chemical signature of microbes from what was once a lake more than 3.5 billion years ago. The rover will store 15-gram rock samples in dozens of super-sterilized titanium tubes.

The plan is for NASA and the European Space Agency to launch a dune buggy in 2026 to fetch the rock samples, along with a rocket ship that will put the specimens into orbit around Mars. Then another spacecraft will capture the orbiting samples and bring them home. NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to return the samples to Earth around 2031. This unprecedented effort will involve multiple launches and spacecraft — and cost more than $8 billion.

Samples taken straight from Mars, not drawn from meteorites discovered on Earth, have long been considered “the Holy Grail of Mars science,” according to NASA’s original and now-retired Mars czar, Scott Hubbard.

Microbes, memorabilia and a mini-helicopter

To definitively answer the profound question of whether life exists — or ever existed — beyond Earth, the samples must be analyzed by the best electron microscopes and other instruments, far too big to fit on a spacecraft, he said.

"There is nothing better than bringing samples back to Earth where we can put them in a lab and we can apply every element of technology against those samples to make determinations as to whether or not there was, at one time, life on the surface of Mars,” said Bridenstine.

The rover is carrying with it seven instruments that will help it complete its science goals. This six-wheeled robot will test out equipment for future human missions which are expected to launch in 2030 under the Artemis missions.

The rover is carrying three silicon chips bearing the names of nearly 11 million people who signed up to ride along on Perseverance’s journey to Mars. It will also carry an anodized plate showing Earth and Mars on opposite sides of the sun with the message “Explore as one” in Morse code, tucked into the solar rays. Another cool memorabilia the rover will carry is a plaque that pays tribute to medical workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

The rover will release a mini-helicopter, Ingenuity, that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet, and test out other technology to prepare the way for future astronauts.

With Mars at the centre of human exploration, NASA is also sending the first samples of the spacesuit material that the astronauts will wear on the Red Planet. The materials, including a piece of helmet visor, are stashed alongside a fragment of Martian meteorite in the rover.

With inputs from wires

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