The Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter are on their way Mars, beginning their quest to find ancient signs of life, to fly in the skies of the red planet and pave the way for manned missions.
"It's a very important mission with the best chance of discovering evidence for life in the solar system," said David Flannery, a member of the Perseverance science team and long-term mission planner.
The next generation of robotic explorers NASA They left Earth off the coast of Florida early this morning aboard an Alliance Atlas V rocket. Just 20 minutes before Thursday's launch, a 4,5R earthquake struck Pasadena, California, but did not affect the launch's enthusiasm.
At 7:50 a.m. Local time, the main engine and four rocket boosters fired the Atlas rocket, a vehicle taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The rocket was lifted from the Cape Canaveral launch site with a dazzling stream of fire, steam and smoke.
The separation of the Mars 2020 spacecraft from the rocket booster took place one hour after its launch. NASA's two interplanetary spacecraft are now in orbit and will travel nearly 350 million miles on a seven-month journey to the red planet.
The journey to reach this launch was much longer.
Eight years ago, NASA announced that it would build one Mars rover with the Curiosity model, which left for the red planet in 2011. Facing the government budget cuts, NASA essentially assembled the rover, using the remaining parts of its predecessor, and thus Perseverance was born. For scientists like Flannery, Perseverance was not just a name. Prior to the launch, he said he was nervous and optimistic because the take-off was something the NASA science team had been waiting for a long time.
"Most of us have been working on this project for most of a decade," he said.
Perseverance is an all-in-one, rolling science lab. Like its predecessor, it is the size of one car, but contains a large turret at the end of a robotic arm and thicker, more sturdy wheels. The nuclear-powered vehicle contains seven scientific instruments, two microphones and 23 cameras - nine for engineering, seven for experiments and seven to watch the rover come to the surface. It will be able to produce stunning images like the ones we get from Curiosity, but it is also a device capable of searching for extraterrestrial life forms.
"Previous expeditions to Mars have examined its geology and revealed an era in which the red planet had oceans and rivers billions of years ago," said Alan Duffy, an astronomer at Swinburne University and a leading scientist at the Royal Institution of Australia.
"Perseverance will look for the chemical signs of life in this geology, allowing us to better see how habitable it was." However, it will take a long time for surface data to start coming back to Earth.
The next milestone is, of course, to land on Mars and overcome the so-called "seven minutes of horror" - 420 seconds between entering the atmosphere of Mars and touching its surface.
"Landing is the really hard part," Flannery said. "But we have a legacy in this particular mission - the landing system worked perfectly in Curiosity. I am optimistic."
The landing is scheduled to take place in February 2021.
The scientific payload at Perseverance includes an X-ray fluorescence instrument, spectroscopy instruments and a number of radars. Together, they will allow Perseverance to observe the chemistry of its landing site, Jezero Crater.
"Jezero Crater was once an ancient lake full of water 3,5 billion years ago and the conditions are ideal for searching for possible evidence of ancient life," said Brendan Burns, an astrobiologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
The last two weeks, the United Arab Emirates and China sent missions to the red planet. The UAE has launched an atmospheric detector known as Hope, which aims to examine Mars from orbit and give a holistic picture of the planet's atmospheric cycles, potentially answering long-standing questions about the unusual composition of gases. THE China, instead, attempts to land on the surface of Mars. The Tianwen-1 mission consists of three spacecraft: one in orbit, one to land on the red planet and a currently anonymous rover.