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Lift off! NASA successfully launches Perseverance rover

Stephen Kuper

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is on its way to the Red Planet to search for signs of ancient life and collect samples to send back to Earth, following a successful launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Lift off! NASA successfully launches Perseverance rover
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Humanity's most sophisticated rover launched with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at 7:50am EDT Thursday on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Mars 2020 sent its first signal to ground controllers via NASA's Deep Space Network at 9:15am EDT.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine celebrated the successful launch, saying, “With the launch of Perseverance, we begin another historic mission of exploration.”

However, telemetry (more detailed spacecraft data) had not yet been acquired at that point. Around 11:30am EDT, a signal with telemetry was received from Mars 2020 by NASA ground stations.

Data indicate the spacecraft had entered a state known as safe mode, likely because a part of the spacecraft was a little colder than expected while Mars 2020 was in Earth's shadow. All temperatures are now nominal and the spacecraft is out of Earth's shadow.

“This amazing explorer's journey has already required the very best from all of us to get it to launch through these challenging times. Now we can look forward to its incredible science and to bringing samples of Mars home even as we advance human missions to the Red Planet. As a mission, as an agency, and as a country, we will persevere,” Bridenstine added.

The ULA Atlas V's Centaur upper stage initially placed the Mars 2020 spacecraft into a parking orbit around Earth. The engine fired for a second time and the spacecraft separated from the Centaur as expected. Navigation data indicated the spacecraft is perfectly on course to Mars.

When a spacecraft enters safe mode, all but essential systems are turned off until it receives new commands from mission control.

An interplanetary launch is fast-paced and dynamic, so a spacecraft is designed to put itself in safe mode if its onboard computer perceives conditions are not within its preset parameters.

Right now, the Mars 2020 mission is completing a full health assessment on the spacecraft and is working to return the spacecraft to a nominal configuration for its journey to Mars.

The Perseverance rover's astrobiology mission is to seek out signs of past microscopic life on Mars, explore the diverse geology of its landing site, Jezero Crater, and demonstrate key technologies that will help us prepare for future robotic and human exploration.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington, added, “Perseverance is going to make discoveries that cause us to rethink our questions about what Mars was like and how we understand it today. As our instruments investigate rocks along an ancient lake bottom and select samples to return to Earth, we may very well be reaching back in time to get the information scientists need to say that life has existed elsewhere in the universe."

The Martian rock and dust Perseverance’s Sample Caching System collects could answer fundamental questions about the potential for life to exist beyond Earth. Two future missions currently under consideration by NASA, in collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency), will work together to get the samples to an orbiter for return to Earth. When they arrive on Earth, the Mars samples will undergo in-depth analysis by scientists around the world using equipment far too large to send to the Red Planet.    

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of America's larger moon to Mars exploration approach that includes missions to the moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with sending the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis program.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and will manage operations of the Mars Perseverance rover. NASA's Launch Services Program, based at the agency's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, is responsible for launch management, and ULA provided the Atlas V rocket.

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