NASA is heading back to the Red Planet.
The agency launched a new rover, a car-size robotic explorer named Perseverance, to Mars on an ambitious mission to scour the planet for evidence of ancient life.
The rover, which launched into orbit Thursday at 7:50 a.m. ET, is designed to study the geology and climate of Mars. NASA says the mission and its subsequent discoveries could lay the groundwork for eventual human exploration of the Red Planet.
Perseverance is loaded with seven scientific instruments to explore the Martian landscape and assess whether the planet was ever able to sustain life. The six-wheel rover is also carrying a small helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity, to perform experimental test flights in Mars' thin atmosphere, which, if successful, would mark a milestone in powered flight.
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"For the first time ever, we're going to fly a helicopter on another planet," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Monday in a news briefing, adding that future missions to other worlds could use similar helicopters as airborne scouts.
The Perseverance rover launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Typically, crowds gather along beaches near Cape Canaveral to witness NASA launches, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, the agency encouraged space fans to stay home and participate virtually, instead — particularly as new infections continue to surge in Florida and across the country.
Matt Wallace, the mission's deputy project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said the rover has already lived up to its name, as engineers persevered through the pandemic to ready the spacecraft for its much-anticipated launch.
"Nothing prepared us for what we had to deal with in the middle of March as the pandemic struck — not just our team, but communities across the country and the world," Wallace said. "At that point in the mission, we were in our final assembly activities."
NASA had a narrow 20-day launch window during which the orbits of Earth and Mars are optimally aligned. If the mission was delayed beyond that, because of the pandemic or otherwise, the agency would have had to wait "a couple years" for the next opportunity, he said.
But Wallace said that the teams pulled through under challenging circumstances and that the rover is poised to begin its journey to Mars. As a nod to the pandemic's impact and the heroic actions of health care workers around the world, mission engineers attached a plate to the rover with an etched image depicting the spacecraft leaving Earth, with the planet sitting atop the medical symbol of a staff with a serpent entwined around it.
The image is meant to "symbolize the challenge that we faced globally as the pandemic struck," Wallace said. "Of course, all of this is appropriately supported by the rod and serpent of the medical community."
The spacecraft will now spend about 6½ months cruising through space before trying to land on the Martian surface on Feb. 18.
The rover is expected to touch down in Jezero Crater, a site that was once an ancient river delta. Satellite observations of clay minerals in the region suggest that it was flooded with water more than 3.5 billion years ago, making it an intriguing site to search for signs of ancient microbial life.
Perseverance is equipped with ground-penetrating radar to examine the crater's geology, instruments to study the chemical composition and mineralogy of the rover's rocky surroundings, an ultraviolet laser to map the site's organic compounds and gauges to record Martian weather, including temperature, wind speed and humidity.
The rover is also carrying an experiment to test whether carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be used to produce oxygen. If the experiment is successful, scientists could use the technology to develop life-support systems for human stays on Mars, Bridenstine said.
Another goal of the mission is to collect rock and soil samples that NASA plans to bring back to Earth during a future expedition. The cached specimens are the first step in the agency's bold plan to carry out the first sample-return mission from Mars.
Perseverance will be NASA's newest robotic explorer on Mars since the Curiosity rover touched down in 2012. The mission, with its focus on astrobiology, could revolutionize scientists' understanding of Mars.
"We're going to make amazing and surprising discoveries," said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "The most important things that happen in these missions are the things we did not plan. Those are discoveries that are rewriting schoolbooks all over the world."