Dispatches from NASA: Countdown to Mars kicks off a decade of science and discovery

NASA’s Perseverance rover lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on July 30, but the Countdown to Mars is really only just starting. The rover’s months-long journey to Mars will continue through February 2021, then the next decade of Martian science and astrobiological discovery can begin. In this Dispatches from NASA installment, Space Explored captures the week that the Mars 2020 mission took flight in photos and video.

Following a successful launch, the conclusion to the Countdown to Mars will occur shortly after 3:40 p.m. ET on February 18, 2021, when the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity rotor copter arrive at Mars and prepare for landing on the surface of the Red Planet.

Perseverance will begin its search for evidence supporting signs that ancient life once existed on Mars, and Ingenuity will perform the first-ever helicopter test flight on another planet that happens to have an atmosphere with 1% density of that on Earth. The rover will also conduct an experiment called Moxy that aims to produce oxygen on Mars using resources already available on the planet.

Perhaps the most promising piece of science that may come out of the Perseverance rover’s journey on Mars is the potential return of soil samples collected around the Jezero Crater through which scientists believe a body of water once flowed.

NASA chose Jezero crater as the landing site for the Perseverance rover because scientists believe the area was once flooded with water and was home to an ancient river delta.

Jezero crater tells a story of the on-again, off-again nature of the wet past of Mars. More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake. Scientists see evidence that water carried clay minerals from the surrounding area into the crater lake. Conceivably, microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of these wet times. If so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed or shoreline sediments.

The idea is that where there was once water, there may also have been life. Even evidence of microbial life on another planet would be a scientific breakthrough.

Mars may be Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, but a multi-trip mission to the Red Planet remains a remarkable trek with current technology. The most efficient launch window from Earth to Mars occurs every 26 months when the distance from Earth to Mars is at its shortest based on the two planets orbiting the Sun.

Future missions to send rock and soil collection robots from Earth to Mars and back will occur from 2026 to 2030 at the earliest. NASA and the European Space Agency are collaborating on concepts for these future missions.

Once the rocks and soil are back on Earth, scientists can use state-of-the-art labs to learn from the Martian samples. Despite a decade of travel being required, NASA decidedly opted for a mission to return Mars samples to Earth rather than limiting the number of instruments that could be sent to Mars for soil studies.

What we can learn from these missions and the new questions we’ll know to ask for future missions makes Mars 2020 all the more thrilling. But first, NASA had to make the first move by sending Perseverance to Mars in the middle of a global pandemic. Here’s how that looked on Earth.

Meet Alex and Veneeza

Alex Mather, a seventh grader from Virginia, submitted the winning essay suggesting the Mars 2020 rover take the name Perseverance — and that was before NASA and ULA needed to work through a pandemic to meet the July/August launch window. “My heart is just full of gratitude,” Alex told reporters.

The young man spoke with confidence and clarity when discussing plans to study astronomical engineering and work anywhere NASA needs him. Alex described the experience of going from being celebrated in a ceremony with his classmates to his school year abruptly ending as “shocking,” but he also said he believes humans will come out of current events stronger as a species.

After Mars, Alex says he’s “really looking forward to Artemis I,” the upcoming Moon mission under the Artemis Program

A full-size Perseverance rover model was on display at the NASA Press Site at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Vaneeza Rupani, a 17-year-old student from Northport, Alabama, submitted the winning essay for the Mars helicopter named Ingenuity. When asked if she expects the first-ever technology demonstration of a helicopter on Mars to work, Vaneeza answered with absolute certainty that Ingenuity will fly. In her spare time, Vaneeza plays guitar and enjoys the music of Ed Sheeran.

The Mars helicopter is developed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. If the technology demonstration works, Ingenuity may be the first of many planetary rotor copter flights that can provide aerial footage to assist rovers working on the surface.

Alex Mather and Veneeza Rupani post for a photo opportunity with models of the NASA instruments for which their names were chosen. The two students maintained a safe distance from each other and reporters during the presentation.

Alex and Veneeza also posed in front of the Kennedy Space Center countdown clock as it showed Mars 2020 mission graphics. Both students only removed facial coverings that were required as a safety precaution while speaking and posing for photos.

Both of these students are brilliant. Following their careers will be as exciting as answering important questions and discovering new questions to ask with Perseverance.

A rocket to Mars

During the Mars 2020 launch week, select media had the opportunity to view and capture the ULA Atlas V vehicle rollout from the Vertical Integration Facility, or VIF, to Space Launch Complex 41, or SLC-41. The careful process takes about an hour, although timelapse footage can speed up the experience.

Attempting to frame up the rocket shot

Photo credit: (Stephen Marr/Next Horizons Spaceflight)

Setting up cameras to remotely photograph the rocket launch is another special media opportunity provided during the Mars 2020 launch week. Photographers deploy cameras that remotely trigger based on sound or duration to capture launch shots the following day. Make no mistake: remote rocket photography from the launchpad is extraordinarily challenging. An amateur photographer can point a camera at a rocket in the sky and likely snap a salvageable shot if using the right gear.

But even with a proper camera body and lens, much preparation and experience are necessary to frame the right shot and walk away with a usable photo. Make one mistake during setup, and there’s no going back to the launchpad to correct your error. There’s also the tremendous challenge of how to protect your equipment during takeoff or in the event of bad weather between setup and launch. As a reporter with only amateur photography experience, I found myself massively underprepared for this process despite having the opportunity to set up a remote camera at the launchpad.

Fortunately, Daryl Sausse recently joined Space Explored alongside Seth Kurkowski who both attended the Mars 2020 launch with me. Daryl and I stayed up all night before the remote camera setup practicing what to do and how to protect the equipment. Essentially, I had launchpad access, and Daryl had rocket photography experience. Through practice, note-taking, and communicating by phone during setup, Daryl and I somehow managed to pull off Space Explored’s first remote pad shot — although we wouldn’t know that until after the launch when remote cameras could be recovered.

Launch day, T-0

Top left photo credit: (Jon Van Horne/Go Space Launch)

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket took off without a hitch as soon as the window to liftoff opened. We were prepared for up to a couple of hours of waiting with launch windows opening every five minutes.

Here’s my amateur capture from my iPhone while Daryl and Seth took a more professional approach for Space Explored. As ever, wait for the sound to reach our viewing location to really appreciate the power of liftoff.

A quick ultra-wide shot captured on iPhone 11 Pro

The plume created by the Atlas V engines leaves behind a temporary trail of the rocket’s path as it exits Earth’s atmosphere and travels to space.

Remote pad shot results

Following a successful liftoff, media who left cameras at the launchpad traveled back to retrieve their gear. Thanks entirely to Daryl, we managed to leave two cameras at the launchpad instead of just one in service of his go-to “law of averages” strategy. This proved useful as one of our cameras became obstructed during takeoff.

The other camera did not! Daryl’s equipment and configuration captured these dramatic scenes during liftoff. As Space Explored’s first remote pad shots go, I couldn’t be prouder of what Daryl made possible.


After liftoff, launch personnel apply water to clean the pad so ULA can return with another rocket in the future and repeat the process again and again.

Pegasus and Falcon

One bonus during Mars 2020 launch week included the surprise arrival of NASA’s giant Pegasus barge. The enormous vessel is usually stationed at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana. It will also be what the Space Launch System Core Stage uses to travel from Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a hot-fire test in October or November.

During this cameo, Pegasus was delivering critical SLS hardware known as the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter for the Artemis I mission. This will be NASA’s uncrewed lunar flyby mission to test the Space Launch System vehicle in late 2021 before a crewed flight around the Moon for Artemis II. The third Artemis mission will be the first to bring astronauts to the surface of the Moon since the Apollo missions.

Another expected perk during Mars 2020 launch week at Port Canaveral was seeing the first stage booster of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket that was previously used to send NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station for the historic SpaceX Demo-2 mission. The booster was flown twice at this point after being used once for DM-2 and again for a recent mission called ANASIS 2. NASA’s iconic red “worm” logo could be seen on the flight-proven booster during a surprise appearance at Kennedy Space Center a few hours after the Mars 2020 launch, but photography is not permitted when traveling between media sites.


Space Explored also had two unique Space Time podcast opportunities during Mars 2020 launch week, including interviews with professionals from JPL, NASA, and ULA:

Tune in to each episode if you haven’t yet, and stay tuned for much more Mars 2020 mission coverage on Space Explored as we await Perseverance’s Mars arrival when the real work begins.

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