NASA is set to launch an ambitious mission to Mars on Thursday with the liftoff of its next-generation Perseverance rover, a six-wheeled robot tasked with deploying a mini helicopter, testing out equipment for future human missions and searching for traces of past Martian life.

The $2.4 billion mission, slated for liftoff at 7:50 am ET (1150 GMT) from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, is planned as the US space agency’s ninth trek to the Martian surface.

Launching atop an Atlas 5 rocket from the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance, the car-sized Perseverance rover is expected to reach Mars next February.

It is due to land at the base of an 820-foot-deep (250 meters) crater called Jezero, a former lake from 3.5 billion years ago that scientists believe could hold traces of potential past microbial Martian life.

“This is unlike any robot that we’ve sent to Mars before because it has the purpose of astrobiology,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview. “We are trying to find evidence of ancient life on another world.”

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