Video report by ITV News Senior Correspondent Paul Davies
NASA has launched a new spacecraft as part of the latest mission to see whether there is life on Mars.
A car-size vehicle has been launched into Space in the hope it will retrieve the first Martian rock samples and bring them back to Earth to check for evidence of ancient life.
The Perseverance rover took off in an Atlas V rocket on 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.
The plutonium-powered, six-wheeled rover will drill down and collect tiny geological specimens that will be brought home in about 2031 in a sort of interplanetary relay race involving multiple spacecraft and countries.
The overall cost is expected to top more than £6.15 billion and it is hoped the mission could pave the way for the arrival of astronauts on Mars by as early as the 2030s.
Watch NASA's rocket launch to check for life on Mars
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said before liftoff: “There’s a reason we call the robot Perseverance. Because going to Mars is hard.
“It is always hard. It’s never been easy. In this case, it’s harder than ever before because we’re doing it in the midst of a pandemic.”
If the mission is a success, the rover will descend onto Mars’ surface on February 18, 2021.
The craft will be travelling at 12,000 mph to a complete stop, with no human intervention whatsoever.
It is carrying 25 cameras and a pair of microphones that will enable those on Earth to vicariously tag along.
The rover will store half-ounce (15-gram) rock samples in dozens of super-sterilized titanium tubes.
Sue Horne, head of space exploration at the UK space agency, told ITV News: “This is really exciting. We’ve been talking about doing Mars sample returns for about 40 years, before I was involved in the space industry.
“It’s only just now we’re getting the capabilities to do that so this rover will look for the most interesting samples.
“An international team of scientists will choose which samples will be put in canisters to be brought back [to Earth] after.”
It also will release a mini helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet, and test out other technology to prepare the way for future astronauts, including equipment for extracting oxygen from Mars’ thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere.
The plan is for NASA and the European Space Agency to launch a dune buggy in 2026 to fetch the rock samples, along with a rocket ship that will put the specimens into orbit around Mars.
Then another spacecraft will capture the orbiting samples and bring them home.