CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The biggest, most sophisticated Mars rover ever built - a car-size vehicle bristling with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers - blasted off Thursday as part of an ambitious, long-range project to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth to be analyzed for evidence of ancient life.
NASA's Perseverance rode a mighty Atlas V rocket into the morning sky in the world's third and final Mars launch of the summer. China and the United Arab Emirates got a head start last week, but all three missions should reach the red planet in February after a journey of seven months and 300 million miles.
Once on the surface, Perseverance will scrounge for evidence of past microscopic life in an ancient lake bed, and gather the most promising rock samples for future pickup. NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to return the samples to Earth around 2031.
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This unprecedented effort will involve multiple launches and spacecraft - and cost more than $8 billion.
"We don't know if life existed there or not. But we do know that Mars at one point in its history was habitable," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on the eve of launch.
The U.S. remains the only country to land successfully at Mars. If all goes well next February, Perseverance will become the ninth U.S. spacecraft to operate on the Martian surface.
First things first, though: Good flying weather is forecast for United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket. The Denver-based rocket maker and its heritage companies have launched all of NASA's Mars missions, beginning with the Mariners in 1964.
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ULA chief executive Tory Bruno said Perseverance is arguably the most sophisticated and most exciting of all the Mars missions.
"We are literally chomping at the bit to take this nuclear-powered dune buggy out to Mars," he said earlier this week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. The Associate Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education.