- Jonathan Amos
- BBC science reporter
Updated 6 hours ago
The US space agency’s Perseverance rover is about to complete its first major objective on Mars.
The NASA rover has collected a diverse set of rock samples that will soon be deposited on the surface, awaiting transport to Earth on subsequent missions.
It’s been 17 months since the vehicle arrived in an area called Jezero Crater, hanging from a crane attached to a rocket.
Everything “Percy” – as the rover has been fondly dubbed – has observed on the surface of Mars since then confirms to scientists that the rover is in the perfect place to look for signs of life.
The rover is not looking for any organisms currently alive, as the hostile environment on Mars makes a presence highly unlikely. Instead, the robot is looking for traces of a biology that may have existed billions of years ago when Jezero was formed from a lake.
Scientists hope to find records of this ancient history in the “incredible” rock samples that will be stored in “a warehouse” in the coming months.
“If the conditions [antigas de Jezero] had existed anywhere on Earth at any time in the past 3.5 billion years, it is safe to say, or at least assume, that biology would have left its mark on these rocks for us to observe, “said David Shuster, a working scientist to the Perseverance mission at the University of California at Berkeley.
NASA and the European Space Agency are working on a plan to recover the rock deposit. It’s a bold plan that will involve another landing system, some helicopters, a Martian rocket, and an interplanetary freighter.
The goal is to bring the champions to Earth in 2033.
Among these are some examples of igneous or volcanic rocks that Perseverance has drilled into the bottom of the crater. The rocks will mainly tell the story of Jezero before it was filled with water from the lake.
Critically, the samples are of a rock type that can be accurately identified over time. Currently, time periods on Mars can only be inferred indirectly.
The remaining samples include sedimentary rocks that Perseverance has collected in recent months from delta deposits in the western sector of the 45 km wide crater.
A delta is a structure built with mud and sand discharged from a river as it flows into a larger body of water.
It is the type of geological structure that can contain traces of past microbial life.
One of the sedimentary samples, from a rock dubbed “Wildcat Ridge”, was generated when mud formed in Lake Jezero as it evaporated. It is full of salts. But the rover’s instrumentation shows that the rock also contains abundant organic or carbon-rich compounds.
This is a tempting observation, but one that comes with important caveats.
“All life as we know it is composed of organic substances. But more importantly, organic matter can also be composed of chemical processes unrelated to life; for example, through water-rock interactions. And organic matter can also be found. in cosmic dust, “said Sunanda Sharma, mission scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
For four months, Perseverance has been working on the 40-meter-high escarpment that forms the edge of the delta.
The robot will soon exit this slope to a flat area near the bottom of the crater, where the rock samples, in their protective titanium tubes, can be deposited on the ground.
“We are exploring the possibility of putting 10 to 11 sample tubes on the surface here,” said Rick Welch, system engineer on the project at JPL.
“It would take about two months to place these samples and carefully document where they are so that a future mission can find them.”
NASA engineers are studying how the pipes, which are currently stored in Perseverance’s belly, will be ejected. They have a full-size copy of the rover at the JPL to simulate the maneuvers before sending commands to Mars and performing the actual actions.
The decision on whether or not to carry out the plan should be made by NASA after an October 19 meeting.
It may be that this first deposit released by Perseverance will be used as a backup backup and will only be collected if the rover suffers a catastrophic failure in the remainder of its mission.
Scientists want to collect more samples. If so, the recovery plan should focus on where the robot will go in the future.
A final decision will be motivated by the events on Mars.
Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, praised the “incredible Perseverance team” for the achievements of the mission so far.
“Not only did we go to the right place, but we sent the right spaceship with the right scientific instruments to explore this incredible ancient environment on Mars,” he told reporters.
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