The spacecraft carrying the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter departed from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 7:50 AM E.T. atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, which successfully put it into orbit as it prepares to depart on its journey to Mars.
After traveling through space for close to seven months, Perseverance is scheduled to land at Jezero Crater on Mars on February 18, 2021.
Mars 2020 is NASA's ninth mission to land on the red planet, while Perseverance is its fifth rover.
Perseverance's primary mission is to find possible signs of ancient life in the Martian soil, and preserve the samples for a return to Earth later this decade. The samples are projected to be back on Earth by 2031, due to the complex nature of the missions needed to retrieve them.
The rover will arrive at Jezero Crater carrying Ingenuity – a lightweight helicopter destined to become the first extraterrestrial aircraft. Ingenuity is set to conduct as many as five test flights within Mars' thin atmosphere.
The landing spot – a former lake – was chosen as a prime location for discovering evidence of microbiological life, as it contains one of the best-preserved deposits of a river delta on Mars.
"I'm exceptionally excited about what we're about to do because we're going to launch Mars 2020 with the Perseverance robot," CNN cited NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine as saying during a press briefing at Kennedy Space Center. "But there is so much more going on here. This is the first time in history where we're going to Mars with an explicit mission to find life on another world – ancient life on Mars."
The Thursday launch marked the third and final Mars mission to depart Earth this summer – earlier in July, China and the United Arab Emirates also successfully launched their first Martian explorers, the Tianwen-1 and the Al-Amal ("Hope") orbiter.
The timing of the three missions coincided as opportunities to launch to Mars occur every 26 months when Earth and Mars are in alignment on the same side of the sun, allowing for shorter trip times and less fuel.