NASA has cleared an alien-hunting Mars rover called Perseverance for launch this week.
The $2.1billion (£1.6billion) machine is the size of a small car and is due for liftoff on Thursday from a launchpad in Florida.
It follows the launch of three similar craft by China's space agency last week, sparking what some are calling the race to put man on Mars.
Nasa has set a 16-day window for the launch of Persaverance that opens July 30 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and closes August 15.
The space agency confirmed on Monday that it had given the mission the green light for launch.
"The launch readiness review is complete, and we are indeed go for launch," administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
"We are in extraordinary times right now with the coronavirus pandemic, and yet we have in fact persevered and we have protected this mission because it is so important."
The earliest that Perseverance could launch rocket is 7:50am ET (11:50am BST) on Thursday.
Poor weather conditions or other issues may push this back, though Nasa has a number of backup dates pencilled in.
Should the launch go to plan, Perseverance, which is part of Nasa's Mars 2020 mission, will touch down on the Red Planet in seven months' time.
"The Mars 2020 mission addresses high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key questions about the potential for life on Mars," Nasa says on its website.
"The mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself."
As well as seeking signs of ancient life, Perseverance will collect rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth.
A small helicopter-like craft will ride on the rover's belly all the way to the Red Planet.
Dubbed the Mars Helicopter, it will perform the first powered flight on Mars as part of a technology demonstration for future missions.
Perseverance, which will fire into space strapped to an Atlas V rocket, is loaded with a new drill that it will use to dig up samples of Martian soil.
Those samples could later be picked up on a future mission, Nasa said, and taken back to Earth for analysis by scientists.
"That would help scientists study the samples in laboratories with special room-sized equipment that would be too large to take to Mars," Nasa said.
The space agency will also use the mission to assess the suitability of Mars for future humans exploration missions.
"The mission also provides opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars," Nasa said.
"These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and identifying other resources, such as subsurface water.
"In addition, the mission will characterise weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars."
Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult.
The US is the only country to successfully land a spacecraft on Martian soil so far, having done so eight times since 1976.
Nasa's its InSight and Curiosity rovers, which landed in 2019 and 2012 respectively, are still operational.
Six other spacecraft are currently observing Mars from above, including three belonging to the US, two European and one from India.
Here's what you need to know about the Red Planet…
- Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun
- It is named after the Roman god of war
- The landmass of Mars is very similar to Earth but due to the difference in gravity you could jump three times higher there than you can here
- Mars is mountainous and hosts the tallest mountain known in the Solar System called Olympus Mons, which is three times higher than Everest
- Mars is considered to be the second most habitable planet after Earth
- It takes the planet 687 Earth days to orbit the Sun
- So far, there has been 39 missions to Mars but only 16 of these have been successful
The Mars 2020 mission comes hot on the heels of a similar project launched by China.
The Tianwen-1 mission was sent up on July 23 aboard a Long March-5 carrier rocket from a launch site on Hainan Island.
China's tandem spacecraft — with both an orbiter and a rover — will take seven months to reach Mars.
If all goes well, Tianwen-1, or "quest for heavenly truth," will look for underground water, if it's present, as well as evidence of possible ancient life.
The mission has been called the starting pistol in the race with the US to land humans on the Red Planet.
In other news, billionaire Elon Musk’s Crew Dragon spaceship will bring Nasa astronauts home from the ISS next week.
Musk announced last month that SpaceX's mission to get man on Mars is now the company's "top priority".
And, Nasa has revealed the design of a moon lander that could be taking astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2024.
What are your hopes for Nasa's Mars mission? Let us know in the comments!
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