NASA successfully launched its latest Mars rover aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Thursday. In addition to the rover, the mission carried a first for humanity.
The NASA Mars Perseverance rover was launched at 11:50 UTC on July 30, 2020 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-541. The rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral climbing skywards as it started its seven-month journey from Earth to the rocky surface of Mars.
“With the launch of Perseverance, we begin another historic mission of exploration,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
The $2.7 billion Mars Perseverance mission promises to go where none other has before. NASA plans to use the rover to hunt for signs of ancient microbial life forms. Scientists believe that at one time, possibly billions of years ago, the Red Planet was teeming with microbial life. However, it is a small hitchhiker aboard Perseverance that has garnered the most publicity.
Packed aboard the Perseverance rover is Ingenuity, a small solar-powered helicopter. The small flying machine will be the first ever to explore the skies of another planet. Once it takes flight sometime next year, many believe it will offer humanity a moment worthy of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
Ingenuity is built around a 14-centimeter cube fitted with four carbon-fiber blades, which give it a rotor diameter of 1.2 meters. A small solar panel is fitted to the top of the four rotor blades allowing the replenishment of Ingenuity’s six lithium-ion batteries. This power system will offer around 350 watts, enough to keep the small helicopter airborne for 90 seconds once every Martian day.
The diminutive Martian explorer is fitted to the belly of the Perseverance rover. Once the rover touches down safely on the surface of Mars, Ingenuity will be lowered into the ground. Perseverance will then simply drive away leaving the skies clear for our first controlled flight on another planet.
Although Ingenuity is set to be a landmark mission, it is at its core a pathfinder. It doesn’t carry any scientific instruments and is planned to complete a total of 15 minutes of flight time beginning with short test hops. However, the lessons NASA engineers glean from the data gathered during these flights will be invaluable when developing aerial scouts in the future.