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Weather satellite and robotic telescope spot Perseverance rover en route to Mars

When NASA's powerful Perseverance rover lifted off into space on July 30, a satellite and a robotic telescope caught unique views of the mission on its way to Mars.

Weather satellite GOES-16, which usually monitors terrestrial and space weather from geosynchronous orbit, spotted the smoke plume of the launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Video from the event indicated the plume showed up easily in visible wavelengths, despite clouds around the site, and the launch appeared as a red streak on the satellite's "water vapor" channel.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which operates the mission along with NASA, shared both sets of footage on different Twitter channels, with separate tweets for the visible wavelength plume and water vapor streak. GOES-16 is sometimes referred to by its geostationary position above the United States, at 75.2 degrees west, as GOES East. 

In photos: NASA's Mars Perseverance rover mission to the Red Planet

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that launched Perseverance used two main rocket stages and four strap-on boosters, a particularly powerful format of the vehicle. The extra boost was necessary to lift the car-sized rover, which clocks in at 2,314 lbs. (1,050 kilograms). After the first stage of the Atlas V spent all of its fuel, it separated from the second stage and began tumbling as it fell back to Earth; the stage burned up during re-entry, as planned. 

That stage put on a show of its own. The Virtual Telescope Project, which is managed by Gianluca Masi in Ceccano, Italy, an hour southeast of Rome spotted the booster with its 17-inch PlaneWave robotic telescope. The instrument captured a three-minute exposure of the spent booster spinning through space and also grabbed footage of the protective shell that will carry Perseverance to Mars for the next seven months.

"The telescope tracked the fast apparent motion of the [spacecraft]; this is why stars show as trails, while the spacecraft looks like a bright and sharp dot of light in the center of the image," Masi said in a statement on the project's website.

Perseverance is scheduled to land in Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. One of the rover's major goals is to cache potential samples showing signs of ancient life on Mars. If all goes to plan, these samples will be brought to Earth by a future mission for more scientific scrutiny. Although Perseverance went into "safe mode" soon after launch because the rover got colder than expected, the mission quickly recovered with no issue.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.