NASA’s next-generation Mars rover has blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral top an Atlas 5 rocket on a $US2.4 billion ($3.36 billion) mission to search for traces of potential past life on Earth’s planetary neighbour.
The next-generation robotic rover – a car-sized six-wheeled vehicle carrying seven scientific instruments – also is scheduled to deploy a mini helicopter on Mars and try out equipment for future human missions to the fourth planet from the sun.
Scientists have long debated whether Mars once a much more hospitable place than it is today ever harboured life.
Water is considered a key ingredient for life, and the Mars of billions of years ago had lots of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate planet.
One of the most journey will be what mission engineers call the “seven minutes of terror,” when the robot endures extreme heat and speeds during its descent through the Martian atmosphere, deploying a set of supersonic parachutes before igniting mini rocket engines to gently touch down on the planet’s surface.
Since NASA’s first Mars rover Sojourner landed in 1997, the agency has sent two others – Spirit and Opportunity – that have explored the geology of expansive Martian plains and detected signs of past water formations, among other discoveries. NASA also has successfully sent three landers – Pathfinder, Phoenix, InSight.
The United States has plans to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s under a program that envisions using a return to the moon as a testing platform for human missions before making the more ambitious crewed journey to Mars.
The rover also is intended to help bring Martian rock samples back to Earth, collecting materials in cigar-sized capsules and leaving them in various spots on the surface for retrieval by a future “fetch” rover. That planned rover is expected to launch the samples back into space to link up with other spacecraft for an eventual Earth homecoming around 2031.
Source – NASA, Reuters, National Post