Life NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance successfully lifts off
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NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance successfully lifts off

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NASA’s next-generation Mars rover Perseverance has successfully lifted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on Thursday.

Searching for traces of potential past life on Earth’s planetary neighbour, the US space agency’s $2.4 billion mission launched at 9.50pm on Thursday AEST and is expected to reach Mars in February.

The car-sized, six-wheeled robotic rover, which will launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket from the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance, also is scheduled to deploy a mini helicopter on Mars and test equipment for future human missions to the fourth planet from the Sun.

Officials indicated that all systems appeared ready to go ahead of the launch, with weather forecasts from the Air Force’s 45th Weather Squadron remaining at an 80 per cent probability of launch and fuelling preparations under way for the rocket.

“Mighty Atlas is looking good,” Tory Bruno, chief executive of ULA, wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning.

“Seems like a good day to go to another planet.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday: “This is the ninth time we’ve landed on Mars, so we do have experience with it.”

Perseverance is due to land at the base of an 250 metre-deep crater called Jezero, a former lake from 3.5 billion years ago that scientists suspect could bear evidence of potential past microbial life on Mars.

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 Martian surface billions of years ago had lots of it on the surface before the planet became a harsh and desolate outpost.

It is the latest launch from Earth to Mars during a busy month of July, following probes sent by the United Arab Emirates and China.

Aboard Perseverance is a 1.8-kilogram autonomous helicopter named Ingenuity that is due to test powered flight on Mars for the first time.

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 and InSight.

The US 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.

Perseverance will conduct an experiment to convert elements of the carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere into propellant for future rockets launching off the planet’s surface, or to produce breathable oxygen for future astronauts.

The United Arab Emirates and China separately this month launched probes to Mars in displays of their technological prowess and ambition.

-AAP