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Mission to Mars

Excitement as Nasa launches new rover Perseverance to find life on Mars

Thirteen-year-old Alex Mather, who won a national competition to name NASA's latest rover Perseverance, speaks to the media in front of a mock-up of the robot at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida
Thirteen-year-old Alex Mather, who won a national competition to name NASA's latest rover Perseverance, speaks to the media in front of a mock-up of the robot at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Gregg Newton/AFP

Nasa has launched its latest Mars exploration rover, Perseverance, from Florida. The mission is to look for signs of ancient microbial life and fly a helicopter-drone for the first time. Hundreds of scientists will analyse data collected from rock samples over the next two years.

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Perseverance took off at 7:50 am (1150 GMT) on Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Florida on board a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. 

The spacecraft successfully separated from the rocket and the rover was "flying free", Nasa reported. 

If all goes to plan, Perseverance will reach Mars on February 18, 2021.

Following the rover’s progress from earth over the next two years or so will be an international team of more than 350 geologists, geochemists, astrobiologists, atmospheric specialists and other scientists.

The main objective of the mission is to search for evidence of life forms, which scientists believe existed more than three billion years ago when Mars was much warmer and was covered in rivers and lakes.

"What we are looking for is likely very primitive life, we are not looking for advanced life forms that might be things like bones or fern fossils," explained project scientist Ken Farley.

The Perseverance rover, which was developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is an improved version of Curiosity, a rover which has covered 23 kilometres of the Red Planet since it landed in 2012.

Perseverance is faster, with a tougher set of six wheels, has more computing power, and can autonomously navigate 200 meters per day.

About the size of a small SUV, it weighs a metric ton, has 19 cameras, and two microphones -- which scientists hope will be the first to record sound on Mars.

It has a two-meter-long robotic arm, and is powered by a small nuclear generator.

Perseverance's drill will collect around 30 intact rock cores and place them in test tubes, to be collected by a future joint US-European mission.

Proof of past life on Mars will most likely not be confirmed, if it exists, until these samples are analysed next decade, Nasa chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen said on Tuesday.

Once on the surface, Nasa will deploy the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter -- a 1.8 kilogramme aircraft that will attempt to fly in an atmosphere that is only one percent the density of Earth's.

"It's without question, a challenge. There's no other way to put it," Nasa chief Jim Bridenstine said Wednesday ahead of the launch, which will be the ninth time an exploration such as this has been carried out.

"Mars preserves on the surface of some incredibly complex and diverse geology," said Lori Glaze, Nasa Planetary Science Division director.

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