NASA has revealed plans to launch a rover to Mars next month to scour the red planet for signs of life.
The space agency’s Perseverance Mars rover is set to launch on July 20, and will search for signs of past microscopic life, and collect samples of Martian rock and dust.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, said: “Fifty-one years ago today, NASA was deep into final preparations for the first Moon landing. Today we stand at the threshold of another monumental moment in exploration: sample collection at Mars.
“As we celebrate the heroes of Apollo 11 today, future generations may well recognize the women and men of Perseverance – not only for what they will achieve 100 million miles from home, but for what they were able to accomplish on this world on the road to launch.”
The Mars 2020 project was first announced in December 2012, but launch opportunities have been limited.
NASA explained: “Owing to the relative positions of Earth and Mars to each other, launch opportunities come up only every 26 months.
“If Perseverance didn’t head to Mars this summer, the project would have to wait until September 2022 to try again, seriously impacting the long-term objectives of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program and increasing overall mission risk.”
The rover will launch from Kennedy Space Centre on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, and will then complete a 34 million mile journey to Mars, before landing in the Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.
Its key mission is to search for signs of ancient microbial life, but will collect and store Martian rock and dust samples.
NASA hopes these samples will help to pave the way for human exploration of the red planet in the near future.
NASA added: “The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
“Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.”