A busy month for space in Florida ended with the launch of NASA’s most advanced Mars rover to date. NASA on Thursday launched Perseverance from Kennedy Space Center. Perseverance has no easy job ahead of it — it’s tasked with finding signs of ancient microbial life on Mars and studying conditions of the planet that may pose challenges for a future human-crewed mission there. Gov. Ron DeSantis has endorsed six Florida counties’ bids to become the headquarters of U.S. Space Command. If established in Florida, it would further solidify the state’s dominance in the space industry. And in a new space tourism development, a company called Space Perspective is looking to launch tourists to the edge of space via a capsule launched by a “space balloon” from various locations including Kennedy Space Center.

Deeper exploration of Mars

Perseverance launched Thursday from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 41 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V-541 rocket. NASA expects it will land Feb. 18, 2021, at Jezero Crater on Mars.

Perseverance is NASA’s ninth mission to Mars and fifth involving a rover, following Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity. The Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, is still exploring the planet.

What separates Perseverance from the other rovers is one of its top science goals involves astrobiology, or finding signs of life, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“These other (past) missions have all found things that led us to keep going down this path, having found organics, methane (and) signs of water in the past,” he said. “And even now, Perseverance’s instruments will take the next step.”

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2006, found evidence in 2015 that liquid water flows on Mars.

This deeper probing of Mars to find ancient microbial life is what excites Burt Salk, secretary of The Villages Astronomy Club, the most about Perseverance.

“They’re still actively pursuing the presence of water, as far as looking at certain locations to see if they are what used to be lake beds,” said Salk, of Haciendas of Mission Hills.

Perseverance will provide data about the weather and environment on Mars, and how it will affect manned missions. It also will be equipped with microphones to hear the planet’s surface, a first for Mars rovers, Zurbuchen said.

Attached to the rover is a helicopter called Ingenuity, which will attempt to demonstrate flight in Mars’ atmosphere. Ingenuity, according to NASA, features four carbon-fiber blades arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm, faster than an Earth helicopter.

Engineers tested Ingenuity in environments that simulated Mars’ thin atmosphere and chilly temperatures, according to NASA. If it achieves flight, it would be the first helicopter to fly from another planet.

“I look forward to seeing this Martian Wright Brothers moment,” Zurbuchen said, referring to the brothers credited with inventing, building and flying the world’s first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight.

A special command for space

Florida’s role in the space industry goes beyond innovations in space exploration.

State officials are aiming to boost its chances of being a central location for space conflict as well.

DeSantis endorsed eight municipalities in their bids for the headquarters of the U.S. Space Force’s command center, U.S. Space Command.

These include Brevard, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange, Pinellas and Seminole counties, Jacksonville and Pensacola, said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations with Space Florida.

It would not be the headquarters of the Space Force, the newly formed sixth military branch, but the headquarters of its command center.

This would be the central site where space conflict is managed, Ketcham said.

The bid for Florida to get the Space Command headquarters is aimed at helping Florida secure new missions, units and programs associated with the Space Force, he said.

“We wanted to make sure we were positioned for this state to be as competitive as possible to compete for as many of these opportunities as possible,” he said.

Salk thinks Florida landing the Space Command headquarters would continue to position Florida as a state that would develop the type of intellect needed to support the nation’s space missions.

He also believes the Space Force has potential to “breed a whole group of people that could sustain themselves on a Mars mission.”

New frontiers in space tourism

Imagine traveling into space from a capsule lifted by a balloon that measures the length of a football stadium.

That’s what the company Space Perspective is aiming to do for private tourists in the near future.

The company’s space balloon, Spaceship Neptune, would take space tourists and research payloads to the edge of space.

Spaceship Neptune is scheduled to have its first test flight without a crew in early 2021.

“We’re committed to fundamentally changing the way people have access to space — both to perform much-needed research to benefit life on Earth and to affect how we view and connect with our planet,” said Jane Poynter, co-founder of Space Perspective. “Today, it is more crucial than ever to see Earth as a planet, a spaceship for all humanity and our global biosphere.”

Space Perspective will start with launches from Kennedy Space Center, but plans future launch sites around the world. One of those also is in Florida, Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville.

But like other space tourism ventures, the steep price tag may be too high to draw many would-be tourists.

Earlier this year, SpaceX and the private spaceflight company Space Adventures announced an agreement to fly private citizens to space via the Crew Dragon spacecraft. It would be the first orbital space tourism experience that entirely utilizes American technology, according to Space Adventures.

Private companies Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic also are planning to send tourists into space via suborbital vehicles. Virgin Galactic has sold 600 tickets for its space tourism experience, it told Bloomberg this week, for a program that starts at $250,000 and is slated to launch from New Mexico.

Flying from a space balloon is comparatively cheaper — Space Perspective said its experience would cost $125,000 — but still a six-figure journey.

Despite the overwhelming travel costs, Salk said the concept of space tourism helps keep the public interested in new and emerging space innovations.

He said it gives the idea of people getting an opportunity “to see the darkness of space and to see the stars as they’ve never seen them before.”