NASA is launching a mission to Mars next week that will hunt for signs of alien life on the planet’s surface.
The $2.1billion (£1.6billion) Perseverance rover, due for liftoff from Florida on July 30, follows a similar Martian mission launched by China on Monday.
Should next week’s launch go to plan, Perseverance, which is part of a Nasa mission dubbed Mars 2020, will touch down on the Red Planet next year.
“The Mars 2020 mission addresses high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key questions about the potential for life on Mars,” Nasa says on its website.
“The mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself.”
As well as seeking signs of ancient life, Perseverance will collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth.
A small helicopter-like craft will ride on the rover’s belly all the way to the Red Planet.
Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, it will perform the first powered flight on Mars as part of a technology demonstration ahead of future missions.
The Mars 2020 launch window opens July 30 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and closes August 15.
The mission, which will liftoff aboard an Atlas V rocket, could launch at any time during that window provided conditions are right.
About the size of a small car, Perseverance is loaded with a new drill that it will use to dig up samples of Martian soil.
Those samples could later be picked up a future mission, Nasa said, and taken back to Earth for analysis by scientists.
“That would help scientists study the samples in laboratories with special room-sized equipment that would be too large to take to Mars,” Nasa said.
The space agency will also use the mission to assess the suitability of Mars for future humans exploration missions.
“The mission also provides opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars,” Nasa said.
“These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and identifying other resources, such as subsurface water.
“In addition, the mission will characterise weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.”
Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult.
The US is the only country to successfully land a spacecraft on Martian soil so far, having done so eight times since 1976.
Nasa’s its InSight and Curiosity rovers, which landed in 2019 and 2012 respectively, are still operational.
Six other spacecraft are currently observing Mars from above, including three belonging to the US, two European and one from India.
The Mars 2020 mission comes hot on the heels of a similar project launched by China.
The Tianwen-1 mission was sent up on July 23 aboard a Long March-5 carrier rocket from a launch site on Hainan Island.
China’s tandem spacecraft — with both an orbiter and a rover — will take seven months to reach Mars.
If all goes well, Tianwen-1, or “quest for heavenly truth,” will look for underground water, if it’s present, as well as evidence of possible ancient life.
The mission has been called the starting pistol in the race with the US to land humans on the Red Planet.
In other news, billionaire Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon spaceship will bring Nasa astronauts home from the ISS next week.
Musk announced last month that SpaceX’s mission to get man on Mars is now the company’s “top priority”.
And, Nasa has revealed the design of a moon lander that could be taking astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2024.
What are your hopes for Nasa’s Mars mission? Let us know in the comments!