PASADENA (CBSLA) – After years of preparation, NASA’s Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars.

An Atlas V rocket with the Perseverance rover lifts off from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 30, 2020. (Getty Images)

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The Perseverance, which was built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, was sent to the Red Planet early Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The SUV-sized rover Perseverance launched at 4:50 a.m. Pacific time aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

“It’s been a wild ride, I’ve been working on this project for the past four years about, and this morning it was incredible to watch it launch to Mars,” NASA Mechanical Engineer told CBSLA Thursday.

The rover is slated to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, landing in the planet’s Jezero Crater. The rover will look for signs of past microbial life and collect rock and soil samples for eventual return to Earth.

Katie Stack Morgan, a deputy project scientist at JPL, said the crater is home to “one of the best preserved deltas on the surface of Mars.” She said the location will give the rover access to some of the oldest rocks in the solar system.

The study of those samples will address “some big-picture questions,” she said, including “how did the surface and climate of Mars evolve over time, how do rocky planets form and differentiate, and, of course, was life ever present on Mars.”

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The rover is equipped with a mini helicopter that will become the first ever flown on another planet. It will collect rocks and soil that will be stored for a future return to Earth, marking the beginning of an unprecedented round-trip journey to another planet.

“Scientists have wanted a sample of Mars to study for generations,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said during a recent mission briefing. “We have meteorites on Earth that came from Mars, but it’s not the same as getting an actual sample of pristine Mars rocks and soil to study. And now we’re at a point where we can begin to attempt this amazing feat.”

A close-up view of a full size model of the Perseverance rover is on display at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2020. (Getty Images)

According to Glaze, the Perseverance rover will drill and collect samples, then store them on the surface of the planet.

“In 2026, a `fetch rover’ will be launched to collect those samples and bring them to a rocket that will launch them into orbit around Mars,” Glaze said. “Another orbiter will rendezvous and capture those samples for safe delivery to Earth.”

Perseverance will be performing a host of other tasks, including a search for signs of ancient life on the planet, and potentially laying more groundwork for eventual manned missions to Mars.

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