NASA Successfully Launches First Mission to Mars in Six Years

NASA's Perseverance Rover Successfully Launched

NASA officials and scientists from the United States and around the world cheered today as a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifted off successfully from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The launch vehicle ignited at approximately 7:50 a.m. EST (12:50 UTC) and carried the Mars Perseverance rover into orbit roughly an hour later.

The Perseverance rover is destined for Mars, set to land at Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. The crater is believed to have once been home to a lake nearly 3 billion years ago and hosts a river delta. This makes Jezero Crater a prime location for Perseverance to search for signs of ancient microbial life.

"This is a monumental day," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "We have much work ahead of us, but I know Perseverance is up to the task. This amazing exploration rover is going to revolutionize our understanding of the Red Planet and search for signs of ancient life. It's going to make one of the most sophisticated deliveries we've ever attempted to another planet."

But the Perseverance rover is far from the only payload on board the Atlas V rocket. The rocket is also carrying the helicopter drone named Ingenuity, which will test powered flight on another planet for the first time. In addition, the agencies of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China both sent spacecraft to ride along with Perseverance. The UAE spacecraft, named Hope, will study the planet's atmosphere, while China's spacecraft, Tianwen-1, includes a Mars orbiter and a rover that will search for surface signs of ancient life.

"Today, we celebrate a new milestone in exploration," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "But this is really just the beginning of an exciting journey to a new land of exploration where we will learn more about our mysterious solar neighbor than we ever thought possible."

The launch of Perseverance occurred just a day after NASA released an updated map and images of the crater made by the agency's HiRISE camera aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) satellite. The new images offer a high-resolution view of the treacherous landing path the rover will take to reach Jezero Crater's ancient lakebed.

"I've been studying Mars exploration for decades and as a scientist, it's exciting to see our international collaboration at its best," said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. "Each of us has something different to bring to the table, and when we work together, we can achieve amazing things."

The launch marks the first time in more than six years that NASA has launched a mission to Mars, following the September 2012 launch of the MRO. That mission, which entered Mars' orbit in 2006, has been an invaluable scientific tool, with its High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera alone having returned more data than all other planetary missions combined. The data MRO has gathered has been studied by hundreds of researchers around the world, resulting in thousands of scientific papers to further our understanding of the Red Planet.

While the MRO continues its mission in Mars' orbit, Perseverance will roam the surface of the planet, searching for signs of ancient microbial life, collecting and storing samples of selected rock and soil, and preparing for future missions to return the samples to Earth.

"We have a mandate to bring samples back to Earth," said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "This mission alone won't do that, but it sets the stage, and we'll do it in partnership with the European Space Agency. It's amazing to think of what we might be able to learn."

The samples Perseverance collects could one day be returned to Earth by a potential future mission. Scientists plan to use the most advanced tools and techniques to analyze the samples, which could potentially be collected as early as 2031.

"This is the culmination of a decade of work, and we're just at the starting point," said Farley. "But we're ready to get to Mars and take the next steps in exploration science."

Perseverance is the second NASA rover to be named by students as part of a nationwide contest, choosing to name the rover after the characteristic that enables the robotic explorer to press on in the face of adversity. The first was NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars' Gale Crater since 2012.

The Perseverance rover is nearly identical in size to Curiosity: about the size of a car with dimensions of 10 feet by 9 feet by 7 feet (3 meters by 2.8 meters by 2.1 meters). However, Perseverance weighs 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms) – about 400 pounds (180 kilograms) heavier than Curiosity due to its heavier plutonium battery system and beefier wheels.

"Perseverance is quite a bit heavier than Curiosity," said Chris Leger, the lead engineer for the rover's mobility system at JPL. "But when we designed the wheels of Perseverance, we took that into account so they'd be ready for the tough mission ahead."

Each of Perseverance's wheels has a diameter of about 20 inches (50 centimeters), which is about twice the diameter of Curiosity's wheels. They are also thicker, designed to withstand Perseverance's heavier weight and expected terrain, which includes plenty of boulders and rocks similar to those seen by Curiosity.

While the wheels may look similar to those on Curiosity, the suspension and steering system are entirely new. Perseverance's suspension system is specifically designed to tackle uneven terrain while keeping the rover body level. The rover can climb slopes as steep as 40 degrees and traverse rocks as high as 16 inches (40 centimeters).

"The test of these wheels in the field was really exciting," said Amanda Rumore, the Mars 2020 rover structures lead at JPL. "We had a chance to take the rover's wheels out to a simulated Mars terrain area at JPL and really put them through their paces."

The steering system in Perseverance is designed to turn the wheels slightly to avoid damaging the wheels or rover body when navigating rough terrain. This system, combined with the rover's suspension, allows Perseverance to safely navigate rocky terrain more easily than ever before.

"We gave the rover more wheel travel and a suspension system so it can tackle terrain we've never been able to before," said Rumore. "The increased wheel size also allows us to get higher speed mobility so we can explore more territory."

While Perseverance's wheels were designed with versatility in mind, sometimes the going may get tough for the rover. In these cases, the rover can rely on its six metal wheels to dig into the Martian surface and pull itself forward, even on relatively steep inclines.

Each of the wheels also has a pattern of raised triangles that are designed to provide grip and traction on the Martian surface. Perseverance's wheels are made of aluminum alloy coated in a type of nickel to avoid corrosion in the planet's harsh, cold environment. This design was chosen over a more traditional rubber wheel configuration because of the harsh temperature swings on Mars, which would cause rubber to crack and become brittle over time.

"There's nothing quite like the first time we get to see our rover's wheels on Mars," said Farley. "It's a big moment. But really, it's the culmination of many years of hard work from the entire team."

With the launch of Perseverance, NASA hopes to continue advancing our understanding of Mars and possibly answer fundamental questions about the origins of life. With the clever attitude and rugged design of the rover's wheels, the agency is one step closer to achieving these goals.

"When the rover finally reaches the surface of Mars, we'll get a chance to test these wheels on the Red Planet," said Rumore. "But until then, we'll keep imagining the possibilities."

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