(CBS NEWS) – A 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.
The target: a 28-mile-wide crater near the remnants of an ancient river delta amid lakebed deposits where traces of past biological activity might be preserved.
“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.
“We’re going to fly a helicopter on another world, something that’s never been done before,” Bridenstine said. “This is a Wright brothers’ moment in time. And we’re going to prove that we can turn the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars into oxygen for life support. Because remember, we’re sending humans to Mars. That’s ultimately the goal.”
Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory initially had problems communicating with Perseverance and its cruise stage because the spacecraft was still so close to Earth its radio transmitter overwhelmed the sensitive receivers in NASA’s Deep Space Network listening stations.
When communications finally were established, flight controllers discovered the spacecraft had activated protective “safe mode” software after temperatures in the cruise stage went beyond pre-set limits when the vehicle was still in Earth’s shadow.
Matt Wallace, deputy manager of the Perseverance project at JPL, said engineers were working through procedures to put the spacecraft back in its normal cruise mode and that all of its subsystems were behaving normally. The temperature reading likely was the result of overly conservative limits built into the flight software and not an indicator of actual trouble.
Perseverance is the third Mars probe launched in the past two weeks, following spacecraft sent off by the United Arab Emirates and China. But the NASA rover is the most ambitious Mars mission to date, building on the success of eight earlier U.S. landings.
The long-awaited mission finally got underway at 7:50 a.m. EDT when the Atlas 5’s Russian-built RD-180 first stage engine and four solid-propellant strap-on boosters ignited, generating a combined 2.3 million pounds of thrust.
The 197-foot-tall rocket and its payload tipped the scales at about 1.2 million pounds, and the excess liftoff power resulted in a faster-than-usual climb away from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
In just 35 seconds, the Atlas 5 was traveling faster than sound, and four minutes later, when the RD-180 shut down and the first stage fell away, the vehicle was more than 300 miles from the launch site, nearly 100 miles up and moving at more than 13,400 mph.
At that point, the powerful hydrogen-fueled Centaur second stage took over, continuing the climb to space with an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine. Two Centaur firings were required to boost the Perseverance rover and its planetary cruise stage to an Earth-escape velocity of about 26,000 mph.
The rover and cruise stage, set spinning for stability, were released on a precise trajectory toward a point in space 292 million miles away where Mars will be next February 18.
The rover’s descent to the surface, famously described as “seven minutes of terror,” will begin when it plunges into the martian atmosphere at more than 12,000 mph, its heat shield enduring temperatures up to 2,370 degrees before its rocket-powered “sky crane” jet pack lowers it to the surface on the end of a tether.
The targeted landing site, Jezero Crater, features an ancient river channel cutting through one rim and a clearly visible delta fanning out across the crater’s floor. The river that once flowed in, some 3 to 4 billion years ago, filled a basin the size of Lake Tahoe.
“A delta is where you get the deposition of very fine grained (material), basically a mud,” said project scientist Ken Farley. “So mud comes in, gets carried down the river, it hits the slack water of the Lake and the mud settles out.
“The beauty of this is that anything that is carried down the river that might have been alive, or things that lived in the lake, will get buried in this very (favorable) environment. … So we know that we have a habitable environment with a high preservation potential.”
Perseverance, named by a Virgina seventh grader after a nationwide competition, is equipped with a complex sample collection and packaging system. As the mission progresses, a drill on the end of a robot arm will collect core samples that will be sealed in small, ultra-clean tubes and deposited at precise locations.
The long-range plan calls for a NASA lander to deliver a European Space Agency rover to fetch the samples. The rover will return to the lander, load the samples into a NASA-supplied rocket that will launch a sample container into Mars orbit. A European spacecraft then will capture the container and bring it back to Earth in 2031.
“If it sounds complicated, it is,” said Lori Glaze, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters. “But NASA’s investments in developing autonomous robots and landing large payloads on Mars have laid the groundwork for a successful sample return campaign.”