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Conservatives win all party support of Uighur genocide vote in House of Commons

MIKE BLANCHFIELD, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Tuesday, Feb 23rd, 2021

OTTAWA — Canada’s House of Commons voted unanimously in favour Monday of a Conservative motion declaring as genocide the atrocities committed against ethnic Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all of his Liberal cabinet ministers abstained from the politically charged vote, which took place mainly over video, and against the backdrop of all-but-frozen relations between Beijing and Ottawa.

China has imprisoned two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on what the government and dozens of its allies say are bogus charges in retaliation for the RCMP’s December 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau registered a formal abstention on behalf of the government, drawing audible jeers over the video feed.

Dozens of Liberal MPs supported the Conservative motion, which passed by a 266-0 margin, amid the cabinet abstentions in the 338-seat Commons.

The vote is largely symbolic but represents growing political opposition to widespread reports of atrocities against Chinese minorities, accusations the China’s communist leaders vociferously deny.

MPs also voted in favour of an amendment from the Bloc Quebecois to call upon the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Olympic Games out of China if the genocide continues.

The Liberal support came after the Conservatives called on Liberal MPs to support the party’s motion earlier in the day.

Conservative MPs Michael Chong and Garnett Genuis were joined by Uighur community members at a teleconference Monday in calling for the government’s support, suggesting that unanimity would send a strong signal to China.

“We can no longer ignore this,” said Chong, the party’s foreign affairs critic.

“We must call it for what it is: a genocide.”

The Conservatives tabled the motion in the House of Commons last week for vote to formally declare that crimes against Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province constitute a genocide.

The move was non-binding but it has angered China and its ambassador to Canada warned Canadian MPs to butt out of his country’s internal affairs days earlier.

Genuis, the critic for international development and human rights, said the Conservatives expected to have the support of opposition parties to pass the motion.

“But we believe the message will be that much stronger and clearer if as many members of the government as possible join with us and show that we are able to stand together on issues of fundamental human rights,” he said earlier Monday.

Trudeau has stopped short of agreeing with American officials, human rights advocates and legal scholars who argue the violations amount to a genocide, saying it is a loaded word that has to be used carefully. But he has said serious human rights abuses are taking place in the western Chinese province.

Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden will be discussing China in their virtual meeting on Tuesday.

Opposition parties indicated before the vote they were prepared to support the Conservative motion.

“New Democrats recognize that China’s measures of mass detention, forced labour, surveillance and population control, such as forced sterilization, against Uighurs and Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang meet the definition of genocide,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in a statement.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said his party would support the motion so long as their amendment on the Olympics was passed.

A Green party spokesman said it would support the Conservative motion, and the Bloc amendment.

Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather said on Twitter before the vote that he would vote in support of the genocide motion. His backbench colleagues fell in line like virtual dominoes once the voting started.

Earlier Monday, Chong dismissed the Chinese government’s claims there is no genocide taking place in Xinjiang.

Ambassador Cong Peiwu recently told The Canadian Press that reports of millions of people in detention camps being subjected to forced labour, sterilization and other abuse is simply unsubstantiated China-bashing.

Chong rejected that denial, saying there are reams of satellite images, smuggled video and documents, accounts from escaped Uighurs and undercover reporting by major American newspapers to document the atrocities.

“The evidence has come in the form of high-definition, high-resolution satellite imagery that has been tracked over time that documents clearly the building of hundreds of detention centers,” said Chong.

The Tories were joined by Kalbinur Tursun, a Uighur who fled China and has spoken publicly against the Communist party’s treatment of her people in Xinjiang.

Speaking through a translator provided by the party, she said the world didn’t believe the horrors of the Holocaust until the concentration camps were exposed for all to see after the Second World War.

“Yesterday’s Jews are today’s Uighurs,” said Tursun.

Two weeks ago, Tursun said Chinese police contacted her with “threatening texts and phone calls reminding me to cease talking.” She said she was speaking publicly in an appeal to save the lives of her relatives back home.

A Canadian parliamentary subcommittee concluded in an October report that China’s treatment of Uighurs is a genocide, a finding China rejected as baseless. The committee heard from Uighur witnesses who gave first-hand accounts of atrocities.

“What we see before our eyes is not complicated. We see the existence of modern concentration camps,” said Genuis.

“When you think of slaves being forced to pick cotton, you might initially think of images of the Antebellum South. But that description equally describes what is happening in Xinjiang.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2021.

EXCLUSIVE: Federal hotel quarantine rules being ignored by some

VICTORIA REVAY AND ADRIAN GHOBRIAL | posted Tuesday, Feb 23rd, 2021

Starting Monday, all international passengers arriving at major Canadian airports have to complete a mandatory three-day hotel quarantine once they land, along with a suite of measures meant to prevent contagious COVID-19 variants from entering the country.

WATCH: https://toronto.citynews.ca/2021/02/22/exclusive-federal-hotel-quarantine-rules-being-ignored-by-some/

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said the tighter border controls are meant to keep everyone safe, not punish travellers. But for some these extra measures may be seen as such.

One Toronto woman refused to comply with the new rules, citing financial concerns. She walked out of the airport to quarantine at her home, alone, as caught on camera by CityNews.

“I’m being forced to go to this hotel,” said a visibly frustrated Priya Harrynadan. “I have no money, so how am I going to go to a hotel right now? This is really stressful because I feel like they’re holding me against my will, they’re questioning me. I have no choice… she told me I have no choice, I have to go to the hotel.”

When Trudeau announced the new measures earlier this month, he estimated costs could run up to $2,000 per person. However rates at the Alt Hotel Toronto Airport and the Sheraton Gateway Hotel at Toronto Pearson International Airport, two of the hotels currently participating in the government quarantine program, start at $339 and $319 per person respectively, hotel employees say — which still adds up to around $1,000 for three days.

Previously, the Quarantine Act stated that all travellers had to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine at home. It is unclear how many travellers haven’t been complying with that order.

Cara Zwibel, a lawyer for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says she has been asking the federal government for that data, but they haven’t made it public.

She believes that could mean the new hotel quarantine rules are a violation of the Charter of Rights in terms of leaving and entering the country.

“It’s going to be difficult for the government to forcibly take people to go to hotels if they don’t want to go,” she said. “We really don’t know if there’s good evidence that says … before this rule was in place there were a lot of people who were not following those rules, who were not isolating at home. To me that would be the only justification for this.”

In addition, there are some other bumps in the road — along with getting tested upon arrival, a pre-confirmed hotel booking must be presented once you land at the airport. But pre-booking a hotel has been anything but easy.

Cindy Rajacic’s 70-year-old mother flew to Serbia to be with her dying brother. She’s due to arrive in Canada on Tuesday, but it took Cindy almost 24-hours to book her a hotel room. She says the process needs to be simplified.

“Please put things in place where we can reach someone. We want to abide by all the rules, but give us other options,” she said.

With files from News Staff

Residents asked to put the brakes on region hopping come Monday

THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Monday, Feb 22nd, 2021

As York Region prepares to move into the province’s Red-Control zone on Monday while Toronto and Peel remain under stay-at-home orders for at least two more weeks, concerns are being raised about region-hopping leading to further spread of the COVID-19 variants.

Canada’s top doctor, Theresa Tam, says public health officials identified upwards of 700 cases of COVID-19 variants across Canada on Saturday – a finding she said lends new urgency to her calls to maintain personal COVID-19 precautions.

While overall daily case counts continued to trend downwards, Tam noted that the latest cases of variants of concern could fuel a bigger third wave of the pandemic.

Federal projections released Friday suggest COVID-19 variants could fuel 20,000 new cases per day by mid-March if public health restrictions are relaxed.

COVID-19 ‎biostatistician Ryan Imgrund says governments need to look at the reproductive value – not just case counts – as it predicts where the numbers will go. Using Thunder Bay as an example, he says they are currently in the Red-Control zone but they are showing Grey-Lockdown numbers.

“We knew they would start to show Grey numbers because they’ve had a reproductive number significantly above one for three to four weeks now. And we know that when we see cases go up, we shouldn’t be surprised that all of a sudden Yellow becomes Orange and Orange becomes Red.”

When Toronto and Peel were shut down in December, and York was still open, the province saw a rise in cases as Ontarians hopped from region to region.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott says they don’t want people travelling between regions at this point.

“This isn’t a reopening, everything is back to normal. Not at all,” she said. “Please stay in your own region, please follow the public health measures and sooner or later everyone will get to that place.”

Vaughan mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua stopped short of calling on visitors to stay out of the region come Monday.

“I’m not here to divide people. I think that in the GTA we share in the risk and benefits of our common citizenship,” he said. “I think what you have to do when you come to York Region, you have to respect the rules, the laws and regulations of the region and of the province.”

United Airlines grounding 24 aircraft after engine failure incident over Denver

BT Toronto | posted Monday, Feb 22nd, 2021

United Airlines says it is removing 24 Boeing 777 aircraft from its fleet “out of an abundance of caution” following Saturday’s incident over the skies of Denver.

The move comes after a United Airlines flight out of Denver bound for Hawaii was forced to turn back moments after takeoff when it suffered a catastrophic failure and rained pieces of the engine casing on a neighbourhood, narrowly missing a home.

There were no injuries among the 231 passengers and 10 crew on board.

“Since yesterday, we’ve been in touch with regulators at the NTSB and FAA and will continue to work closely with them to determine any additional steps that are needed to ensure these aircraft meet our rigorous safety standards and can return to service,” United said in a statement.

The airline adds a small number of customers are likely to be inconvenienced by the grounding.

The National Transportation Safety Board said in a separate statement that two of the engine’s fan blades were fractured and the remainder of the fan blades “exhibited damage.” The NTSB did caution that it was too early to draw conclusions about how the incident happened.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive which will require immediate or stepped-up inspections of Boeing 777 airplanes equipped with certain Pratt & Whitney engines.

“We reviewed all available safety data following yesterday’s incident. Based on the initial information, we concluded that the inspection interval should be stepped up for the hollow fan blades that are unique to this model of engine, used soley on Boeing 777 airplanes,” read a statement from FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.

The directive does not affect Boeing 777 aircraft operated by Air Canada, who say their planes are fitted with a different engine.

Airlines in Japan and South Korea also operate planes with the Pratt & Whitney engine. Japan Airways and All Nippon Airways have decided to stop operating a combined 32 planes with that engine, according to Nikkei.

Nikkei reported that Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism also ordered the planes out of service, and the ministry said an engine in the same PW4000 family suffered unspecified trouble on a JAL 777 flying to Haneda from Naha on Dec. 4. It ordered stricter inspections in response.

Files from The Associated Press were used in this report

U.S. vaccine rollout vastly outpacing Canada’s: what can we learn from American push?

MELISSA COUTO ZUBER, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Monday, Feb 22nd, 2021

Canadians perusing social media may be coming across photos of their American peers bearing wide smiles and vaccination cards that show they’ve been inoculated against COVID-19.

A recent ramping up of the United States’s vaccine rollout has it vastly outpacing its northern neighbour, and some Canadians are wondering why distribution here is lagging so far behind.

Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease doctor in South Carolina, says that while the speed of the American rollout has been impressive lately, it’s not been without its faults.

Communication between states has been mostly lacking, she says, and the absence of a uniform standard for vaccine eligibility has led to inconsistencies across jurisdictions. Some states, for example, include teachers high on their priority list while others are still working on inoculating those 80 years and older.

Confusion in the early stages of the rollout caused frustration and dampened trust, she added. And while the shift to a new presidential administration last month has led to some improvements, Kuppalli says there’s room for more.

“I don’t think we’re the model of success,” she said in a phone interview. “We’ve had a lot of challenges. … but it’s getting better.

“Communication is better, there’s definitely greater transparency, and states have been very forthcoming in ramping up vaccine measures and rolling out mass vaccination sites. So all that’s helping.”

The U.S. was vaccinating an average of 1.7 million Americans per day this week, and had administered at least one dose to more than 12 per cent of its population as of Friday.

Canada, which recently dealt with weeks of shipping delays and disruptions from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, has doled out nearly 1.4 million doses since its rollout began mid-December, covering about 2.65 per cent of its population with at least one dose.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday vaccine delivery is set to rapidly increase, however, with provinces preparing to roll out almost a million and a half doses over the next three weeks.

The Americans have many factors in their favour when speeding up vaccine distribution, experts say, including a much more expansive supply than Canada’s that’s bolstered by production from U.S.-based Moderna.

While having supply is the first step, Kuppalli says getting those vaccines into pharmacies, where they can be easily administered, has also helped. The American government announced weeks ago its aim to supply vaccines to about 40,000 drugstores in the coming months.

Canada has not yet reached the pharmacy stage of its vaccine rollout, but Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert with the University of Toronto, expects that to happen once we have enough supply to branch out.

“We have the exact same plan, we just need the critical mass of vaccines,” said Bogoch, who’s also on Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force. “When we get that, you’re gonna see from coast to coast vaccines offered at many different settings.”

While pharmacy distribution makes sense for a quick rollout, it also can lead to problems with wasted doses if people aren’t showing up for their appointments, says Kelly Grindrod, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy.

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines need to used within a relatively short timeframe after they’re thawed from ultra-cold storage temperatures, Grindrod says, and once a vial has been punctured, that interval decreases further.

She says Canada has been learning from wastage setbacks other countries are experiencing, and she expects Plan B lists to be compiled of individuals who can quickly fill in when no-shows arise.

Those lists have to be made fairly though, she cautions.

“You have to make sure there’s no queue-jumping. So it’s not your friend coming in, it’s actually people who would fall normally on the next round of priority.”

Grindrod says queue-jumping – where people with lower risk of contracting the virus or experiencing a bad COVID outcome are vaccinated before higher-priority groups – has been more culturally unacceptable in Canada than it has in the U.S., a country without a universal health-care system.

So there’s some justifiable outrage, she adds, when Canadians see American friends boasting about getting their jabs, especially if they’re not in high-risk populations.

“Equity is probably the most important principle of the Canadian vaccine rollout,” Grindrod said. “And I’m not sure that’s the case in the U.S.”

While the American rollout has had its faults, Grindrod admires some of the more unique approaches happening south of the border to ensure high-risk groups can get their doses.

She noted the recent role Black churches have played in co-ordinating inoculation drives among typically underserved neighbourhoods, and the pharmacists who have been driving vaccines into remote communities to inoculate those who can’t easily get to an immunization centre.

“You’re seeing really positive examples where communities themselves are helping to create effective outreach,” she said.

“So I think those are the real lessons we can learn from the U.S.”

Returning to Canada under new quarantine rules brings new challenges

CARYN CEOLIN AND MALEEHA SHEIKH | posted Monday, Feb 22nd, 2021

The cost of the mandatory hotel quarantine won’t be quite as expensive as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had warned.

WATCH VIDEO: https://toronto.citynews.ca/2021/02/21/returning-to-canada-under-new-quarantine-rules-brings-new-challenges/

Starting Monday, non-essential travellers flying back to Canada will have to pay to quarantine at a hotel for as many as three nights while they await COVID-19 test results. Initially, the federal government said it could run up to $2,000 per person but now it looks like it will be far less.

Nightly rates at the Alt Hotel Toronto Airport and the Sheraton Gateway Hotel at Toronto Pearson International Airport, two of the hotels currently participating in the government quarantine program, start at $339 and $319, respectively, for a single person, employees at those hotels say.

Those rates include all costs associated with the quarantine, including food and security, the employees say.

The federal government released a list of 11 approved hotels in the four cities where international flights are permitted to land.

Some Canadians abroad say the true cost of the government’s new travel rules lacks compassion.

Toronto-area resident Rohan Jumani flew to India at the beginning of the month to be with his dying father. He hopes to return to Canada in early March with his mother, who he says is financially and emotionally dependent on him. And when he lands, his pregnant wife could give birth at any time.

While the bill will be less than the $2,000 Trudeau touted, Jumani says it’s still a cost people saying goodbye to a loved one shouldn’t have to bear.

“It would be absolutely cruel for the government to slap me with a bill for returning back to Canada,” Jumani tells CityNews. “It has been very stressful for us, to be honest, because we did not budget for this.

Jumani says this is not about avoiding quarantine, adding he would be happy to do so at home for 14 days.

“Any added dollar towards quarantine is a financial burden.”

Toronto native Adam Gabay is currently in England studying physiotherapy. He says he flew back to Canada during the first wave when everyone was told to come home and while he did all he could remotely, he needed to return to England in order to get the hands-on experience necessary to complete his studies. Now, with his program ending in less than a week and his student visa set to expire, he’s also expressing frustration at the additional cost to quarantine – money on top of his current student loans.

“I’m travelling for essential reasons,” explains Gabay. “I came here for my education the same way that a lot of foreign students are allowed to come to Canada.”

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NEW QUARANTINE HOTELS: https://toronto.citynews.ca/2021/02/21/returning-to-canada-under-new-quarantine-rules-brings-new-challenges/

While there is a list of exemptions for non-essential travel, Gabay’s situation is not one of them while Jumani says he hasn’t heard back from officials on his plea for an exemption on compassionate grounds.

While some people who are driving back across the border may consider extending their stay outside Canada until the restriction is lifted, the president of a travel insurance agency says that also comes with some unexpected negatives.

Martin Firestone of Travel Secure Inc., warns that staying too many days outside of the country can affect your government health insurance while any extended stays in the United States could lead to someone having to file U.S. taxes.

Even those travellers trying to abide by the new rules have run into challenges, such as booking a hotel room in advance of their arrival. High call volumes have meant wait times on the phone of up to three hours for some.

Pritam Divecha said in a tweet he has tried calling on both government-provided hotline numbers for over 60 hours and has had no luck. His flight is scheduled to land on Monday.

CityNews reached out to Health Canada who said they are aware of the high volume of calls to book hotels, saying only those who are ready to reserve a room or have a flight booked should call.

Attempting to skirt the hotel quarantine rules could end up costing you a fine of $3,000. Addtional fines of up to $750,000 and six months in jail await anyone who breaks quarantine or isolation and if that results in the death of another person, they could be fined up to $1 million.

Single vaccine jab appears highly effective against COVID-19, experts say

COLIN PERKEL AND JACOB SEREBRIN, THE CANADIAN PRESS | posted Friday, Feb 19th, 2021

There is compelling evidence that a single dose of COVID-19 vaccines may provide almost as much protection as giving two doses, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer said Thursday.

Dr. Howard Njoo said the advisory committee of federal and provincial public health officers is having an active discussion about whether Canada would be better served to delay the second doses of vaccines in a bid to give protection to more vulnerable people quicker.

“These are what I would call early data in terms of a vaccine effectiveness or studies,” he said. “And the indications are that there’s a good level of protection after just one dose.”

Canada intends to vaccinate three million people with two doses by the end of March.

More than 990,000 Canadians have received at least one dose, and about one-third of those have also received their second doses.

Quebec’s immunization committee went as far Thursday as to recommend nobody get a second dose until a first dose is injected into everyone in six high-risk groups, including people over 70, health-care workers, and people who live in long-term care homes and retirement residences.

The committee reported that single doses have been 80 per cent effective at preventing COVID-19 so far among long-term care residents and health workers who were vaccinated.

Questions about delaying the second doses arose almost as soon as vaccinations began in December, prompting a whirlwind of debate among scientists about the ethics of “going off label.”

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines – the two currently authorized in Canada – were tested by giving two doses, 21 days and 28 days apart respectively.

But Dr. Danuta Skowronski, the epidemiology lead for influenza and emerging respiratory pathogens at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, said data show two weeks after one dose of either vaccine, the protection against COVID-19 was almost as good as what was found after two doses.

Skowronski and Dr. Dr. Gaston De Serres from the Institut national de sante publique du Quebec made the case in a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week.

Moderna reported itself that two weeks after one dose, those who got the vaccine were 92 per cent less likely to develop COVID-19 symptoms.

Pfizer and BioNTech, whose vaccine uses similar genetic technology to Moderna’s, said their vaccine was 52 per cent effective after one dose, but 94.5 per cent effective after two.

Skowronski said Pfizer started measuring illness as soon as the injections were given, which she said is “unreasonable.”

“It’s basic vaccinology that you don’t expect the vaccine to activate the immune system instantaneously,” she said, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Skowronski said if you wait two weeks to start counting infections, there were 92 per cent fewer infections of COVID-19 among those who got one dose of the vaccine, compared with those who got the placebo.

At that level of protection, she said “we need to get a first dose into our priority populations, and the most vulnerable of those at greatest risk of severe outcomes and the precious resource of our front-line health-care workers.”

She said the second dose should eventually be given but said there isn’t a maximum time she would put on how long to wait.

Pfizer has issued caution about adjusting the dosing schedule but said the decision to do so rests with local authorities.

“We at Pfizer believe that it is critical for health authorities to carry on surveillance on implemented alternative dosing schedules to ensure that vaccines provide the maximum possible protection,” the company’s statement reads.

Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization said in January that the recommended schedule should be followed wherever possible but that delaying a second dose up to six weeks could be beneficial, particularly with a shortage of supplies and a fast-spreading virus.

Skowronski said waiting six weeks instead of three or four for a second dose won’t do much.

“That’s not maximizing coverage that we need to undertake with the scarcity of the vaccine that is available now.”

Several provinces have been delaying the second doses a couple of weeks, particularly as deliveries of both Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine and Moderna’s slowed to a crawl in mid-January.

Those delays appear to be over. Pfizer says it will ship nearly three million doses over the next six weeks, and Moderna promises to ship more than 1.4 million.

With the two authorized vaccines, and the two-dose schedule followed, Canada expects to vaccinate 14.5 million people by the end of June and all Canadians who want to be immunized by the end of September.

A new vaccination schedule issued Thursday shows if the other three vaccines currently being reviewed get approved by Health Canada, 24.5 million Canadians could be vaccinated before Canada Day.

NASA rover lands on Mars to look for signs of ancient life

MARCIA DUNN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | posted Friday, Feb 19th, 2021

A NASA rover streaked through the orange Martian sky and landed on the planet Thursday, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in an epic quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on Mars.

Ground controllers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leaped to their feet, thrust their arms in the air and cheered in both triumph and relief on receiving confirmation that the six-wheeled Perseverance had touched down on the red planet, long a deathtrap for incoming spacecraft.

It took a tension-filled 11 1/2 minutes for the signal to reach Earth.

“Touchdown confirmed! Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking signs of past life,” flight controller Swati Mohan announced to back-slapping, fist-bumping colleagues wearing masks against the coronavirus.

The landing marks the third visit to Mars in just over a week. Two spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China swung into orbit around Mars on successive days last week. All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, journeying some 300 million miles in nearly seven months.

Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, became the ninth spacecraft since the 1970s to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the U.S.

The car-size, plutonium-powered vehicle arrived at Jezero Crater, hitting NASA’s smallest and trickiest target yet: a 5-by-4-mile strip on an ancient river delta full of pits, cliffs and fields of rock. Scientists believe that if life ever flourished on Mars, it would have happened 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, when water still flowed on the planet.

Over the next two years, Percy, as it is nicknamed, will use its 7-foot (2-meter) arm to drill down and collect rock samples with possible signs of bygone microscopic life. Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside on Mars to be retrieved by a fetch rover and brought homeward by another rocket ship. The goal is to get them back to Earth as early as 2031.

Scientists hope to answer one of the central questions of theology, philosophy and space exploration.

“Are we alone in this sort of vast cosmic desert, just flying through space, or is life much more common? Does it just emerge whenever and wherever the conditions are ripe?” said deputy project scientist Ken Williford. “We’re really on the verge of being able to potentially answer these enormous questions.”

China’s spacecraft includes a smaller rover that also will be seeking evidence of life – if it makes it safely down from orbit in May or June.

Two older NASA landers are still humming along on Mars: 2012’s Curiosity rover and 2018’s InSight.

Perseverance was on its own during its descent, a manoeuvr often described by NASA as “seven minutes of terror.”

Flight controllers waited helplessly as the preprogrammed spacecraft hit the thin Martian atmosphere at 12,100 mph (19,500 kph), or 16 times the speed of sound, slowing as it plummeted. It released its 70-foot (21-meter) parachute and then used a rocket-steered platform known as a sky crane to lower the rover the final 60 or so feet (18 metres) to the surface.

Perseverance promptly sent back two grainy, black-and-white photos of Mars’ pockmarked, pimply-looking surface, the rover’s shadow visible in the frame of one picture. The rover appeared to have touched down about 35 yards from the nearest rocks.

“Take that, Jezero!” a controller called out.

Mars has proved a treacherous place. In the span of less than three months in 1999, a U.S. spacecraft was destroyed upon entering orbit because engineers had mixed up metric and English units, and an American lander crashed on Mars after its engines cut out prematurely.

In addition to mining the rocks, Perseverance will conduct an experiment in which it will convert small amounts of the mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere into oxygen, a process that could be a boon to future astronauts by providing breathable air and an ingredient for rocket fuel.

The rover is also equipped with a record 25 cameras and two microphones, many of them turned on during descent. Among the never-before-seen views NASA intends to send back in the next couple days: the enormous supersonic parachute billowing open and the ground getting closer.

“A feast for the eyes and ears. It’s really going to be spectacular,” observed Arizona State University’s Jim Bell, lead scientist for a pair of mast cameras that will serve as the rover’s eyes.

NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to bring the rocks home. Perseverance’s mission alone costs nearly $3 billion.

The only way to confirm – or rule out – signs of past life is to analyze the samples in the world’s best labs. Instruments small enough to be sent to Mars wouldn’t have the necessary precision.

“It’s really the most extraordinary, mind-boggingly complicated and will-be history-making exploration campaign,” David Parker, the European Space Agency’s director of human and robotic exploration, said on the eve of landing.

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