Thursday successfully launched its newest rover to Mars, in an ambitious mission seeking signs of past Martian life.
“The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, powered by the United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket, has blasted off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station!” the US space agency wrote on its website.
The launch “went right on time,” at the opening of the two-hour launch window at 7:50 am (1150 GMT).
Adam Stelzner, the chief engineer for the Mars Perseverance rover, confirmed that NASA was receiving signals from the spacecraft – the final critical milestone of the launch.
“It’s very nice to have the spacecraft safe, separated, on its way to Mars. We’re hearing from the spacecraft,” Stelzner said. “Our launch process is complete. The vehicle is on its ways to Mars.”
The next-generation robotic rover, which is the size of a small car, is expected to reach Mars by next February.
It is designed to search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars, study its climate and geology, collect and store rock and soil samples, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.
The 1,040-kilogram rover also has a helicopter drone named Ingenuity strapped to its belly, which could become the first craft to fly on another planet.
The spacecraft will be continuously tracked from stations in Australia, Spain and the US until it reaches Mars.
Perseverance is set to land at the base of a crater called Jezero, a 3.5-billion-year-old former lake that scientists say could provide evidence that microbes previously existed on Mars. Mars had water on its surface billions of years ago, a fact that has led to speculation that there may have been some form of life on the planet.
It is the third Mars mission of the summer, after China and the United Arab Emirates both launched their own orbiters this month.
NASA has previously conducted eight successful Mars landings. Its latest mission is part of the Artemis programme, which aims to land people on the moon by 2024 and establish a sustained human presence there by 2028, as part of its efforts to get astronauts to Mars.