NASA's newest Mars rover is called Perseverance, and it has already lived up to the name.
Weighing in at just over a ton and loaded with the most sophisticated instruments ever sent to the red planet, the six-wheeled vehicle has already survived a hurdle no previous rover has had to face: a global pandemic.
After overcoming months of uncertainty, Perseverance is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, awaiting the start of the 309-million-mile journey that will take it to an ancient lake bed that may contain evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Despite the unprecedented challenges, the $2.4-billion space robot is expected to blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as early as Thursday -- right on schedule.
The rover traveled across the country from its birthplace at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge in February. After its arrival, as many as 90 NASA employees gathered in a cleanroom every day to reassemble, test and otherwise prepare the SUV-sized machine for the rigors of spaceflight.
Even in the midst of a devastating health crisis, that work cannot be done from home.
"Everyone on the team did their part and kept themselves healthy," said Luis Dominguez, deputy electrical lead for the mission at JPL, who has been based in Florida since February. "We were incredibly lucky."
Delaying the launch for even a few months was never an option. The orbits of Earth and Mars align only once every 26 months. In order to get to Mars in a reasonable period of time with a manageable amount of fuel, the rover has to launch within a period of 20 days or so relative to that closest approach.
"If you miss a planetary window to Mars, you essentially have to wait two years for the next opportunity," said Matt Wallace, Perseverance deputy project manager at JPL. "That's why the other countries that are launching missions are launching them right now."
If everything goes according to plan, Perseverance will spend seven months flying through space before touching down in Jezero Crater in mid-February. Once there, it will quickly begin searching for conclusive evidence that life once flourished on Mars.