NASA Launches Rocket to Mars: All-American Historic Trip to Red Planet

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch to Mars arrives at Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The rocket scheduled to launch on Thursday will land on Mars in February 2021 and the Mars …
AP Photo/John Raoux

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will launch a rocket on Thursday morning to Mars on a mission that will include deploying a rover, a helicopter, and collecting samples that scientists hope may show signs of life on the red planet.

“I’m exceptionally excited about what we’re about to do because we’re going to launch Mars 2020 with the Perseverance robot,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at Wednesday’s briefing at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center. “But there is so much more going on here. This is the first time in history where we’re going to Mars with an explicit mission to find life on another world — ancient life on Mars.”

“In 2026, we’re going to launch a mission from Earth to Mars to go pick up those samples and bring them back to Earth,” Bridenstine said. “For the first time in history, we’re doing a Mars sample return mission.”

“NASA Television and the agency’s website will provide live launch coverage tomorrow morning, starting at 7,” the NASA website said of the launch. “Stay tuned as the mission eclipses multiple milestones — including stage separation, main engine cutoff, and spacecraft separation — or follow along at blogs.nasa.gov/Mars2020.”

NASA released a fact sheet on the mission:

  • Mission Name: Mars 2020
  • Rover Name: Perseverance
  • Main Job: The Perseverance rover will seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth.
  • Launch Window: July 30 – Aug. 15, 2020
  • Launch Location: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
  • Landing: Feb. 18, 2021
  • Landing Site: Jezero Crater, Mars
  • Mission Duration: At least one Mars year (about 687 Earth days)
  • Tech Demo: The Mars Helicopter is a technology demonstration, hitching a ride on the Perseverance rover.

The ArsTechnica website reported on the mission:

NASA and its science division, led by Thomas Zurbuchen, deserve credit for pulling together this latest $2.4 billion Mars mission amidst a pandemic, with the coronavirus striking almost precisely at the moment when preparations for launch were most frenetic. “Together,” Zurbuchen said, “We have persevered.”

The rover will also bring a small helicopter to Mars for the first time. Named Ingenuity, the 1.8kg helicopter is about a half-meter tall, with two pairs of counterrotating blades that span 1.2 meters. “This is a Wright Brothers moment, but on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the helicopter project’s manager. “It adds an aerial dimension to exploration.”

Scientists have long dreamed of studying actual rock and soil samples from Mars in their labs, akin to the opportunities researchers enjoyed with the hundreds of kilograms of Moon rocks brought back by the Apollo program. Perseverance will take the first step toward doing that with a mechanism to collect and stash promising samples.

The two-hour launch window starts at 7:50 a.m. Thursday.

Follow Penny Starr on Twitter.

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