Perseverance Rover Begins Rock Study in Martian Crater

NASA scientists hope the rover will help determine if Mars ever featured conditions suitable for sustaining life and whether evidence of that life is preserved in an ancient lakebed.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover used its dual-camera Mastcam-Z imager to capture this image of Santa Cruz, a hill about 1.5 miles away from the rover, on April 29, 2021, the 68th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The entire scene is inside of Mars’ Jezero Crater; the crater’s rim can be seen on the horizon line beyond the hill. (Photo courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS)

(CN) ⁠— Having already completed its impressive landing on Mars and serving as a communication hub for a historic helicopter mission through Martian skies, NASA’s Perseverance rover is now focusing its scientific instruments on the ancient lakebed that is the red planet’s Jezero Crater.

Perseverance successfully executed its long-awaited landing on the red planet this past February, setting off another phase of the mission that will collect soil and rock samples to bring back to Earth. The tense, seven-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere and the rover’s landing on the Jezero Crater culminated a seven-month, 293-million-mile journey.

The six-wheeled, SUV-sized rover will traverse a section of the crater and snap photos of rock and sediment samples using a high-tech camera called Watson attached to the end of its robotic arm.

Perseverance will also use its SuperCam laser instrument to analyze rock samples and determine whether they’re sedimentary rocks like sandstone, or igneous rocks which are formed by volcanic activity.

NASA scientists are eager to study rock samples from Jezero Crater, which they believe was once home to a flourishing river delta and lake. 

Scientists with the U.S. space agency have said the 28-mile-wide crater once hosted a Lake Tahoe-sized body of water that may have left behind clues of single-celled organisms and microbial life that could’ve populated the planet. 

The analysis of the samples will determine if Mars ever sustained life and whether evidence of that ancient life is preserved on its surface.

The presence of sedimentary rocks could indicate bodies of water once filled the area in or around what is now Jezero Crater. Microbial evidence of past life would also be better preserved in the clay, sand and silt of former waterways.

Samples of igneous rocks meanwhile would offer a glimpse into Mars’ ancient volcanic activity and provide scientists with a timeline of how this section of the red planet formed over time.

Perseverance’s project scientist Ken Farley of the California Institute of Technology said in a statement released Tuesday this phase of the rover’s mission could be complicated by the many layers of younger dirt and sand obscuring the analysis of samples.

While the rover can’t crack open a rock, it has a tool that can scrape and flatten a sample’s surface to reveal its chemical and mineralogical make-up, Farley said.

“When you look inside a rock, that’s where you see the story,” Farley said. “The more rocks you look at, the more you know.”

The Mars rover will also use the PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) and SHERLOC (Scanning for Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) tools to deeply examine samples, NASA said.

Perseverance has recently acted as the communication hub for the Mars Ingenuity helicopter mission, relaying signals from NASA to the rotorcraft.

Last month, Ingenuity completed its first successful flight on Mars, marking the first powered, controlled flight on another planet in human history.

The rotorcraft will scout small sections of Mars’ rocky terrain once it successfully orients itself in the planet’s thin atmosphere.

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