NASA's new Mars rover Perseverance rockets toward Red Planet to search for ancient life
By JOEL ACHENBACH | The Washington Post | Published: July 30, 2020
A $2.7 billion NASA rover, Perseverance, blasted off into clear skies over Florida's Cape Canaveral on Thursday atop an Atlas V rocket, the start of a nearly seven-month journey to Mars.
After spending an initial 30 minutes in Earth orbit, the firing of an upper-stage engine sent the spacecraft on its interplanetary mission. If all goes as planned, the vehicle will deposit the rover in a crater on Mars on Feb. 18.
Forty minutes after the launch, NASA reported it was in communication with the spacecraft and there were no technical issues.
The mission, officially known as Mars 2020, is designed to search for signs of ancient Martian life. The rover is supposed to obtain samples of rock cores and soil that could later be sent back to Earth for study in laboratories.
"Sitting atop that rocket there is one of the finest interplanetary payloads ever assembled, and the thousands of scientists and engineers behind them — they would have to be the finest team ever assembled," Abigail Allwood, a geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is part of the science team, said in an email as she and her colleagues awaited the launch. "This rover is going to kick some astrobiological butt."
Scientists and engineers at the mission control center at JPL in Pasadena, Calif., had a doubly exciting morning: They experienced a modest earthquake just minutes before blastoff. That got everyone's attention but didn't throw off the launch schedule.
The launch itself was flawless, NASA reported, but there was some midmorning drama as the huge ground-based antennae used by the space agency initially could not properly lock onto the spacecraft as it hurtled at 25,000 miles per hour away from the Earth. By midday, the communication problem had been resolved, and the data from the spacecraft was being analyzed.
"All the indications that we have, and we have quite a few, is that the spacecraft is just fine. It's a very stable spacecraft," Mars 2020 Deputy Project Manager Matthew T. Wallace said at a post-launch news conference. Noting that the spacecraft was spinning 2.5 times per minute, he said, "It's like a spinning top. You can't knock it over."
The rover is the successor to the still-operating Curiosity rover, which has made breakthrough discoveries, including finding complex organic molecules of the type that could be associated with living things. Perseverance is superficially similar to Curiosity but has a different suite of instruments that will allow it to inspect and take images of rock formations in far greater detail.
It has a drill for obtaining rock cores and soil samples, which the rover will stash in containers. NASA hopes to send another rover in 2026 that would collect the samples and launch them into Mars orbit. Another spacecraft would carry them back to Earth, with a targeted arrival of 2031.
The mission is the first leg of what is known as the Mars Sample Return campaign. Returning samples of Mars to Earth has been the highest priority of the planetary science community.
It's possible there is life on Mars today, said Bruce Jakosky, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado and the lead scientist on a Mars orbiter that is studying the atmosphere of the planet. If so, that life would probably be deep underground in porous rock where water is liquid.
"We've learned that Mars has seasons and an atmosphere that behaves in many ways similar to the Earth's. Mars has geology that is very reminiscent of what we see on Earth — volcanoes, river channels. Mars has polar caps. And the climate has varied through times on many different time scales. Liquid water was abundant early in its history," Jakosky said.
If all goes as planned, the rover will make a pinpoint landing in Jezero Crater, a site carefully picked by scientists for its plausible habitability in a distant era when Mars was warmer and wetter. The crater was once filled with water, and a river flowed into it, depositing sediments in a delta that is enticing to the scientists who will operate the rover remotely.
This mission will shine light on "the potential biological history of Mars, and of course by doing so also create a better understanding and basis for future human missions," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's top science administrator.
As with all Mars missions, this one is fraught with promise and peril. Mars is notoriously difficult to explore with robotic probes, many of which have failed in some fashion upon reaching the planet.
"I find myself awake at night thinking about it," Zurbuchen said.
At the post-launch news conference, he said: "I'm relieved. It's a space mission now, and it's on the way to Mars."
The coronavirus pandemic has slowed many NASA missions, but this one had a deadline imposed by orbital physics: There's a narrow window when the Earth and Mars are properly positioned. Perseverance had to launch by Aug. 15. Otherwise, the mission would have been delayed by a couple of years until the planets were back in the right position.