United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying NASA’s nuclear-powered Perseverance Mars rover roared to life and lifted off from planet Earth early Thursday, the first step in a decade-long program to search for signs of past microbial life and to collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.
The $2.4 billion rover and its supporting cruise stage — equipped with solar panels, thrusters, navigation and communications systems — were released onto a near-perfect trajectory to Mars about 57 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral. The journey will take seven months, putting Perseverance on track for landing on the red planet next February.
“We’re going to put the most sophisticated rover on the surface of Mars that has ever existed there,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a post-launch interview with CBS News. “It’s going to do something that we’ve never done before, it’s going to do astrobiology.
“This little rover is going to look for signs of ancient life on the red planet. … We’re going to make a determination whether or not we think there was life there, then we’re going to cache those samples and in 2026 we’re going to launch a mission to Mars to bring those samples home (in 2031).”
While sample collection is the primary goal of the Perseverance mission, the rover is also carrying an experimental $80 million helicopter called Ingenuity for the first powered flight off the surface of another planet. And the rover will test technology astronauts might one day use to live off the land by extracting oxygen from from the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere.