The biggest, most sophisticated Mars rover ever built—a car-size vehicle bristling with cameras, microphones, drills, and lasers—blasted off Thursday as part of an ambitious, long-range project to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth to be analyzed for evidence of ancient life. NASA’s Perseverance rode a mighty Atlas V rocket into a clear morning sky in the world’s third and final Mars launch of the summer. China and the United Arab Emirates got a head start last week, but all three missions should reach the red planet in February after a journey of seven months and 300 million miles, the AP reports.
The plutonium-powered, six-wheeled rover will drill down and collect tiny geological specimens that will be brought home in about 2031 in a sort of interplanetary relay race involving multiple spacecraft and countries. The overall cost: more than $8 billion. In addition to addressing the life-on-Mars question, the mission will yield lessons that could pave the way for the arrival of astronauts as early as the 2030s. "There’s a reason we call the robot Perseverance. Because going to Mars is hard," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said just before liftoff. "It is always hard. It's never been easy. In this case, it’s harder than ever before because we’re doing it in the midst of a pandemic." (Thanks to Perseverance, one Mars rock will continue its strange journey.)