An Atlas V rockets lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center with NASA’s Perseverance rover on its way to Mars on Thursday at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The car-size rover will gather Martian rock samples that NASA plans to bring back to Earth in 2026 to be study for evidence of ancient life. (John Raoux/AP)

The biggest, most sophisticated Mars rover ever built — a car-size vehicle with cameras, microphones, drills and lasers — blasted off Thursday as part of a long-range project to bring the first Martian rock samples back to Earth to be analyzed for evidence of ancient life.

NASA’s Perseverance, named by a Northern Virginia middle schooler, rode a mighty Atlas V rocket into a clear morning sky in the world’s third and final Mars launch of the summer. China and the United Arab Emirates got a head start last week, but all three missions should reach the Red Planet in February after a journey of seven months and 300 million miles.

The six-wheeled rover will drill down and collect tiny rock specimens that will be brought home in about 2031 in a sort of interplanetary relay race involving multiple spacecraft and countries. The overall cost: more than $8 billion.

In addition to addressing the life-on-Mars question, the mission could pave the way for the arrival of astronauts as early as the 2030s.

“There’s a reason we call the robot Perseverance. Because going to Mars is hard,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said just before liftoff. “It is always hard. It’s never been easy. In this case, it’s harder than ever before because we’re doing it in the midst of a pandemic.”

The United States, the only country to safely put a spacecraft on Mars, is seeking its ninth successful landing on the planet. More than half of the world’s missions there have burned up, crashing or otherwise ending in failure.

Launch controllers wore masks and sat spaced apart at the Cape Canaveral control center because of the coronavirus outbreak, which kept hundreds of scientists and other team members away from Perseverance’s liftoff.

Alex Mather of Burke, Virginia. stands next to a model of the Mars 2020 rover he named as part of a contest during a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Alex suggested “Perseverance” because it described “the ability to keep on pushing the limits and to recover in the face of tragedy.” (John Raoux/AP)

“That was overwhelming. Overall, just ‘Wow!’” said Alex Mather, the 13-year-old student at Lake Braddock Secondary in Burke, Virginia, who proposed the name Perseverance in a NASA competition and traveled to Cape Canaveral for the launch.

If all goes well, the rover will descend to the Martian surface on February 18, 2021, in what NASA calls seven minutes of terror, in which the craft goes from 12,000 miles per hour to a complete stop. It is carrying 25 cameras and a pair of microphones to send sound and images back to Earth.

Perseverance will aim for treacherous unexplored territory: Jezero Crater, a dusty expanse filled with boulders, cliffs, dunes and possibly rocks bearing signs of microbes from what was once a lake more than 3 billion years ago. The rover will store half-ounce rock samples in dozens of titanium tubes.

It also will release a mini helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet, and test out other technology to prepare the way for future astronauts, including equipment for extracting oxygen from Mars’s thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere.

A model of the Mars rover Perseverance is displayed Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center. The rover carries a mini helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet. (John Raoux/AP)

The plan is for NASA and the European Space Agency to launch a dune buggy in 2026 to fetch the rock samples, along with a rocket ship that will put the specimens into orbit around Mars. Then another spacecraft will capture the orbiting samples and bring them home.

To definitively answer the profound question of whether life exists — or ever existed — beyond Earth, the samples must be analyzed by the best electron microscopes and other instruments, far too big to fit on a spacecraft, said NASA’s original and now-retired Mars czar, Scott Hubbard

“I’ve wanted to know if there was life elsewhere in the universe since I was 9 years old. That was more than 60 years ago,” the 71-year-old Hubbard said from his Northern California cabin. “But just maybe, I’ll live to see the fingerprints of life come back from Mars in one of those rock samples.”