On Thursday morning, NASA launched the Perseverance rover to Mars, where its mission will be to search for signs of past microbial life.
The mission has been seven years in the making and will see some unprecedented exploration of Mars which may have at one point hosted life billions of years ago.
The Perseverance rover launched at 7:50 a.m. Eastern on July 30. The timely liftoff took place at the Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where the rover was strapped onto a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket.
"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. Now we can look forward to its incredible science and to bringing samples of Mars home even as we advance human missions to the Red Planet. As a mission, as an agency, and as a country, we will persevere."
An hour into its flight, and Perseverance separated from the rocket and officially began its journey to Mars. The rover also sent a signal, or 'phoned home,' shortly after separation through the Deep Space Network, which manages communication with the spacecraft.
But the rover is still far from Mars, and is scheduled to reach the Red Planet on February 18, 2021.
Perseverance will land on the Jezero Crater, a 28-mile wide, 500-meter-deep crater located in a basin slightly north of the Martian equator. Jezero Crater once housed a lake estimated to have dried out 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. Therefore, it is the ideal location for Perseverance to hunt for signs of past microbial life.
"Jezero Crater is the perfect place to search for signs of ancient life,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "Perseverance is going to make discoveries that cause us to rethink our questions about what Mars was like and how we understand it today."
The goal of the Perseverance mission is to look for clues of ancient life on Mars. These will help scientists understand the history of the planet, which is hypothesized to have once been a wet, habitable world.
It will look for signs of habitability on the Martian surface and past microbial life, collecting samples of rocks and soil and setting them aside for the first ever sample return mission from another planet. The rock samples will be stored away in tubes in a well-identified place on the Martian surface, and left there to be returned to Earth by a future mission to the Red Planet.
The mission will also test out conditions for possible human exploration of Mars by trialing a method of producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, characterizing environmental conditions such as water and dust on Mars, and looking for resources.
Perseverance isn't venturing to Mars on its own. The Ingenuity helicopter will hitch a ride with the rover, and allow NASA to test out its ability to fly a helicopter on a planet other than Earth for the first time.
The rover is set to spend one Martian year, or the equivalent of 687 days on Earth, exploring the Red Planet.