The Mars 2020 mission is on its way to the Red Planet after a successful liftoff from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today (July 30) at 7.50am ET (12.50pm BST). The incredible new mission is sending the Perseverance rover and the small helicopter Ingenuity to discover some of the mysteries of Mars, with the two technical marvels set to land in late February 2021.
Perseverance is the fifth Martian rover developed by NASA and is certainly the most advanced yet. The rover's suite of instruments allows for some incredible geological investigation of the Martian surface, particularly in the Jezero Crater, an ancient lake with extensive clay deposits and clear evidence of water flowing billions of years ago, where it is due to land.
Its array of instruments includes more cameras than any interplanetary mission in history, and an instrument called SHERLOC designed to investigate the potential signatures of organic molecules and maybe even life. The mission will even record the sounds of Mars for the first time ever thanks to microphones onboard.
Challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic had the team worried that they may miss their launch window this year, but their hard work and professionalism ensured that everything was achievable without sacrificing the safety of personnel at NASA. Nonetheless, a plaque commemorating the hard work of medical professionals worldwide was added to the rover. The name Perseverance was proposed by a student long before the pandemic took hold, but it has become quite symbolic of the work carried out to ensure a safe, successful launch during the last few months.
The mission is on a one-way trip to Mars but something is expected to come back to Earth. The US space agency, together with its European counterpart, is planning a Sample-Return mission, so we could potentially have Martian soil samples back here on Earth in 2031.
The Mars 2020 mission also heralds the first time a flying machine has been sent to another world. Ingenuity is a small solar-powered helicopter and for the moment is just a technology demonstration. We want to know if we can fly drones in an alien atmosphere. The mission will fly in short bursts and autonomously for 30 Martian days. If successful, it might herald many more flying missions to Mars and beyond.
A closer look at Jezero crater, where Perseverance is set to touch down in 7 months. ESA
Perseverance and Ingenuity are not alone on their journey to Mars. The launch window that opened this summer 2020, while Earth and Mars are at their closest, means the quickest journey to get to Mars for a good few years, so other countries have taken advantage of this too. The United Arab Emirates launched its orbiter Hope on July 20, and China’s Tianwen-1, which includes an orbiter, lander, and rover, launched on July 23.
February 2021 will be an exciting month for Mars, so stay tuned.