CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The biggest, most sophisticated Mars rover ever built -- a car-size vehicle loaded with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers -- blasted off for the red planet Thursday as part of a 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 their destination in February after a journey of seven months and 300 million miles.
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 is more than $8 billion.
NASA's science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, pronounced the launch the start of "humanity's first round trip to another planet."
"Oh, I loved it, punching a hole in the sky, right? Getting off the cosmic shore of our Earth, wading out there in the cosmic ocean," he said. "Every time, it gets me."
In addition to potentially answering one of the most profound questions of science, religion and philosophy -- Is there or has there ever been life beyond Earth? -- 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. "In this case, it's harder than ever before because we're doing it in the midst of a pandemic."
Shortly after liftoff, Perseverance unexpectedly went into safe mode, a sort of protective hibernation, after a temperature reading triggered an alarm.
But deputy project manager Matt Wallace later said the spacecraft appeared to be in good shape, with its temperatures back within proper limits, and that NASA will probably switch it back to its normal cruise state within a day or so.
"Everything is pointing toward a healthy spacecraft ready to go to Mars and do its mission," he said.
The U.S., the only country to safely put a spacecraft on Mars, is seeking its ninth successful landing on the planet, which has proved to be the Bermuda Triangle of space exploration, with more than half the world's missions there burning up, crashing or otherwise ending in failure.
If all goes well, the rover will descend to the Martian surface Feb. 18 in what NASA calls seven minutes of terror, during which the craft will go from 12,000 mph to a complete stop. It is carrying 25 cameras and a pair of microphones that will enable Earthlings to vicariously tag along.
Perseverance will aim for Jezero Crater, a treacherous, unexplored expanse of boulders, cliffs, dunes and possibly rocks bearing the chemical signature of microbes from what was a lake more than 3 billion years ago.
The rover will store half-ounce rock samples in dozens of super-sterilized titanium tubes.
It also will release a mini helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet, and test out other technology to prepare the way for future astronauts. That includes equipment for extracting oxygen from Mars' thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere.
Samples taken straight from Mars, not drawn from meteorites discovered on Earth, have long been considered "the Holy Grail of Mars science," according to NASA's now-retired Mars czar, Scott Hubbard.