Nasa’s most ambitious mission yet to the Red Planet blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canavera today, bound for a 3.5 billion-year-old former lake, seeking the answer to the question that has fascinated the world since long before David Bowie’s 1973 hit: Is there life on Mars?
It soared into the sky under clear, sunny and warm conditions carried by an Atlas 5 rocket from the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance. The launch took place after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California where its mission engineers were located was rattled by an earthquake.
Mars 2020 is Nasa’s ninth mission there, and, at a cost of almost $3 billion, is easily the most expensive. It will take seven months to reach its destination. And then, on arrival, come February next year, the tricky stuff begins.
Perseverance, a nuclear-powered buggy, weighing 1,050kg, will be the fifth NASA rover to land on Mars. The six-wheeled robot, which will deploy a mini helicopter for the first time, will test out equipment for future human missions and, of course, will search for traces of past Martian life.
Jezero crater, the 28-mile wide destination of Perseverance, contains sediments of an ancient river delta, a location where evidence of past life could be preserved — if life ever did arise on Mars. British researchers from Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum – backed by the UK Space Agency – will help the Perseverance select the rock and soil samples.
But it will first have to approach the planet’s atmosphere at precisely the right angle: too steep, and it will burn up, too shallow, and it will simply bounce off.
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