A part of Decatur is on its way to Mars.
On Thursday, an Atlas V rocket assembled at United Launch Alliance’s 650-employee plant on Red Hat Road thundered into the blue skies above Cape Canaveral, Florida, on its way to the Red Planet, 314 million miles of space and nearly seven months’ time away.
The launch is a reminder that despite SpaceX’s headline-grabbing launch of two astronauts to the International Space Station in May, ULA is still a key player in America’s space efforts, routinely and successfully launching probes into the far reaches of the solar system and helping scientists better understand places no human is going anytime soon.
Atop ULA’s rocket is its precious cargo: Perseverance, the largest and most sophisticated Mars rover ever built. Whereas the Spirit and Opportunity rovers before it were like 400-pound go-karts trudging along the Martian landscape, the car-size Perseverance weighs in at about 2,260 pounds. It’s a heavyweight, and it has to be.
Perseverance is loaded with instruments that will give scientists back on Earth their best look yet at the planet that has fired their dreams since American astronomer Percival Lowell imagined in the late 1800s that he saw irrigation ditches and bands of vegetation on the planet’s surface.
Lowell was wrong, fantastically so. His Mars only ever existed in the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yet ever since, many scientists have held out hope that life of some sort might exist on Mars — or have existed there at some point in the distant past.
With its camera, microphones, drills and lasers, Perseverance will try to find out. It will also launch a mini helicopter that, if successful, will be the first powered flight on another planet. But Perseverance will also do something else never attempted before: It will try to send part of Mars back to Earth.
In the unexplored Jezero Crater, Perseverance will collect and store rock samples, that will then wait for a joint NASA/European Space Agency mission in 2026, which will send a dune buggy to Mars that will retrieve the samples and then launch them into orbit around Mars. From there, a third spacecraft will pick up the samples and bring them home.
To call this interplanetary relay ambitious is an understatement. More than half of the spacecraft the United States and other countries have sent to Mars have failed, crashed or simply gotten lost. When someone says something isn’t rocket science, the implication is rocket science is hard, and it is. So far, the U.S. is the only country to land a craft on the Red Planet successfully, although we again have competition.
This summer, while Mars and Earth are at their closest to each other for the next 26 months, China and the United Arab Emirates have launched their own vehicles to Mars. China has both an orbiter and a rover en route, while the UAE has just an orbiter on the way.
Getting unmanned missions to Mars successfully is not simply a matter of prestige or testing new technologies, although those are important. It’s about planting the seeds that people hope someday will sprout on the Martian surface in the form of a manned landing — humanity’s literal first step beyond our own little planet and its satellite.
A lot could still go wrong between now and Perseverance’s expected arrival on Mars in February.
Even more could go wrong during the crucial seven minutes it will take for Perseverance to go from orbit to the surface. But with a boost from Decatur, Mars’ next immigrant is on its way.