The NASA rover Perseverance and its on-board helicopter is on its way to Mars for a new mission on the red planet after a successful launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

After liftoff, the spacecraft entered a safe mode state likely because it was a little colder than expected while in Earth’s shadow during orbit. However, NASA said all temperatures are now nominal and that the spacecraft emerged out of Earth’s shadow and is on a course for Mars.

The rover and the on-board helicopter’s mission aims to search for signs of ancient life and collect samples to send back to Earth. The astrobiology mission is to seek out signs of past microscopic life on Mars and explore the geology of its landing site, which is the Jezero Crater. It will also demonstrate technologies that can help prepare future missions for both robots and humans, NASA said.

"Jezero Crater is the perfect place to search for signs of ancient life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Perseverance is going to make discoveries that cause us to rethink our questions about what Mars was like and how we understand it today. As our instruments investigate rocks along an ancient lake bottom and select samples to return to Earth, we may very well be reaching back in time to get the information scientists need to say that life has existed elsewhere in the universe."

The rover has a sample caching system that collects rocks and dust, offering possible answers about potential life that existed beyond Earth. NASA is also considering two future missions in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) where the two agencies will work together to get the samples from the rover to an orbiter and then Earth. From there, the samples will undergo analysis by equipment too large to send to Mars.

Seven instruments

The Perseverance rover carries seven instruments that are geared toward learning more about Mar’s geology and astrobiology. The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) on the rover will focus on missions yet to come as well. The rover will demonstrate if converting Martian carbon dioxide into oxygen is possible and could lead to future versions of MOXIE technology becoming staples on Mars missions, providing oxygen for rocket fuel and breathable air.

The Ingenuity Mars helicopter will remain attached to the belly of the rover for the flight to Mars and for the first 60 days on the surface. After that, the helicopter will attempt up to five powered, controlled flights with the data acquired to help the next generation of Mars helicopters provide an aerial dimension to Mars exploration. This might include scouting for rovers and human crews, transporting small payloads or investigating difficult-to-reach destinations.

The Perseverance mission is part of America’s larger Moon to Mars exploration approach that includes missions to the Moon to prepare for human exploration of Mars as well as sending astronauts back to the Moon by 2024. NASA plans to establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through the Artemis program.

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