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Nasa’s latest Mars rover blasts off in search of alien life

Image credit: reuters

Nasa’s Perseverance rover has successfully blasted off on its $2.4bn (£1.8bn) mission to Mars atop an Atlas 5 rocket in search of former signs of life on the planet.

The car-sized robotic spacecraft is set to deploy a mini helicopter on Mars for the first time and test equipment that may ultimately be used in a future manned mission.

The rocket carrying the rover launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida today at around 12.50pm GMT.

Dramatically, a 4.2-magnitude earthquake shook southern California just 20 minutes before departure.

“I’m so relieved,” Nasa’s science division chief Thomas Zurbuchen said on a live stream after the launch, saying everything looked good.

“It’s really kind of a key of a whole bunch of new research that we’re doing that is focused on the question ... is there life out there?”

perseverance rocket nasa

Image credit: reuters

It is the third mission heading to the Red Planet this month after launches by the UAE and China.

Referring to today’s earthquake, Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Mike Watkins said: "It was just the Earth being excited about going to Mars. It was a very minor event. Everything's fine, and we're on our way to Mars."

The six-wheeled rover will now travel over 500 million kilometres over a period of nearly seven months before attempting to land at the base of a 250m-tall crater called Jezero.

The crater contains sediments of an ancient river delta, where evidence of past life could be preserved if it ever existed on the planet.

Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult because of its thin and dynamic atmosphere – a feat that has been described as “seven minutes of terror”.

Nasa has succeeded in getting only a handful of functioning probes and rovers onto the Martian surface and more than half of the spacecraft sent there have either blown up or crashed.

Just before lift-off, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “There’s a reason we call the robot Perseverance – because going to Mars is hard.

“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.”

UK scientists are working on the project to help Perseverance select the Martian samples to be brought back to Earth.

They will identify samples that could contain evidence of past life and study the mineralogy and geochemistry of the different rocks found in the crater.

Professor Mark Sephton, an astrobiologist at Imperial, said: “I hope that the samples we select and return will help current and future generations of scientists answer the question of whether there was ever life on the Red Planet.

“With one carefully chosen sample from Mars, we could discover that the history of life on the Earth is not unique in the Universe.”

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