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
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: