NASA Launches Perseverance Mars Rover To Hunt Down Signs Of Ancient Life
NASA launched its most sophisticated Mars rover ever to search for signs of ancient life on the red planet, but the space agency lost communication just hours after it left Earth.
NASA launched the Perseverance rover into space today, July 30, onboard an Atlas V rocket in the world’s third and final Mars launch of the summer.
The car-sized vehicle is equipped with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers to help search Mars as part of a long-range project to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth, with the hope they can be analysed for evidence of ancient life.
China and the United Arab Emirates launched missions last week, with China sending both a rover and orbiter and the UAE, which is a newcomer to outer space, launching an orbiter.
All three missions are scheduled to reach the red planet in February after travelling 300 million miles (480 million kilometres) through space. The opportunity to fly between Earth and Mars comes around once every 26 months, when the planets are at their closest together on the same side of the Sun.
A few hours after the launch, communications went dark, though NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein said the loss of communication was ‘not unusual’.
The space craft right now is in deep space, it is a good distance from the Earth, but it is not the distance that we would normally be receiving from using the deep space network.
What this does it puts us in a position where the carrier wave, we have a strong signal, but we haven’t been able to lock on to the modulator of that signal to receive the data.
Officials have since established telemetry lock with the rover, with Matt Wallace, NASA’s deputy project manager, saying: ‘All signs point to good health.’
NASA has described Perseverance’s descent to the planet as the ‘seven minutes of terror’, during which the craft goes from 12,000mph (19,300kph) to a complete stop with no human intervention whatsoever.
Once there, the plutonium-powered six-wheel rover will drill down through the surface of Mars and collect tiny geological specimens that will be brought home in about 2031.
Perseverance will aim for unexplored territory known as Jezero Crater, which is home to boulders, cliffs, dunes and possibly rocks bearing signs of microbes from what was once a lake. The rover is set to store half-ounce (15-gram) rock samples in dozens of super-sterilized titanium tubes.
Once collected, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to launch a dune buggy in 2026 to fetch the rock samples, along with a rocket ship that will put them into orbit around Mars. Another spacecraft is set to capture the orbiting samples and bring them home.
The return to Earth has been dubbed an ‘interplanetary relay race’, involving multiple spacecraft and countries at an overall cost of more than $8 billion, AP reports.
As well as returning rock samples to Earth, the mission will yield lessons that could pave the way for the arrival of astronauts to the planet by testing out equipment for extracting oxygen from Mars’ atmosphere, and releasing a mini helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet.
There were fears the take-off of the rover could be interrupted as an earthquake hit NASA’s facilities in California ahead of the launch, but as the rocket left Earth from the opposite coast, in Florida, it was able to go ahead as planned.
Just before lift-off, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine admitted that the mission might not be easy, saying: ‘There’s a reason we call the robot Perseverance. Because going to Mars is hard.’
It is always hard. It’s never been easy. In this case, it’s harder than ever before because we’re doing it in the midst of a pandemic.
The US is so far the only country to safely put a spacecraft on Mars, and the arrival of Perseverance will mark its ninth successful landing on the planet.
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