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NASA Mars 2020 Mission successfully lifts off, rover experiences minor glitches but it's back online now

With this, the US has become the third country, after the UAE and China, to set off to the Red Planet this year
(United Launch Alliance)
(United Launch Alliance)

NASA's Perseverance rover designed to look for signs of past life on Mars is now headed to the Red Planet. Despite a successful launch on Thursday, July 30, the mission suffered a minor glitch post take off. The issue has since been resolved, the space agency said. Carrying the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity — the first helicopter set to fly on Mars — is the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. With this, the US has become the third country, after the UAE and China, to set off to the Red Planet this year.

"With the launch of Perseverance, we begin another historic mission of exploration," NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, said in a statement. "This amazing explorer's journey has already required the very best from all of us to get it to launch through these challenging times. As a mission, as an agency, and as a country, we will persevere."

What was the problem after launch?

The spaceship experienced a temperature glitch shortly after takeoff. It could be due to a part of the spacecraft becoming slightly colder than expected while in the Earth's shadow. When this happens, the onboard computer detects an abnormality in conditions and moves into safe mode. At that point, all but essential systems are turned off until it receives further commands from mission control, NASA said.

This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s Perseverance rover in action exploring the Jezero Crater on Mars (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The temperatures have since returned to normal. "We have received telemetry (detailed spacecraft data) down from the spacecraft and have also been able to send commands up to the spacecraft. Perseverance is healthy and on its way to Mars," Bridenstine tweeted on July 31.


What is next for the mission?

The Mars 2020 mission is expected to land on Mars in February 2021. NASA has chosen Jezero Crater as its landing site — the region was once home to a lake more than 3.5 billion years ago. Scientists suspect that the site might have preserved microbial fossils.

"Jezero Crater is the perfect place to search for signs of ancient life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "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 mission will also test a helicopter, Ingenuity, on Mars' thin atmosphere. It will provide a bird's eye view of the planet. Another instrument traveling with the Perseverance rover is MOXIE which stands for the Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment. Its goal is to generate oxygen on the Red Plant for two purposes: to help future astronomers breathe and to make fuel for rockets.

Lighter colors represent higher elevation in this image of Jezero Crater on Mars, the landing site for NASA's Mars 2020 mission. The oval indicates the landing ellipse, where the rover will be touching down on Mars

“Not only do you need oxygen for people to breathe, but you need it for the rocket to breathe too. If you are burning fuel, you need oxygen to consume it,” Michael Hecht, MOXIE principal investigator, and director of research at MIT Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts, said in a statement. “There is a reason why oxygen tanks are the heaviest items on a spaceflight manifest.”

There is more. The Mars 2020 mission will also collect rock samples and bring them back home. When they arrive on Earth, scientists will analyze them to understand if life existed there. "There is still a lot of road between us and Mars," said John McNamee, Mars 2020 project manager at JPL. "About 290 million miles of them. But if there was ever a team that could make it happen, it is this one. We are going to Jezero Crater. We will see you there Feb. 18, 2021."