Now, Perseverance is preparing to carry out its main mission: to study Jezero Crater and look for signs of ancient life on Mars.
About 3.9 billion years ago, the crater was filled with a lake fed by a river delta. Now, rocks strewn across the dry lake bed could help scientists reconstruct the history of this region on Mars and determine if life ever existed there.
The information locked inside the rocks could reveal more about when the lake formed and dried up, as well as when sediment from the delta started to accumulate. Creating a timeline corresponding to the rocks will help researchers date the rock samples the rover will collect over the next two years. These samples, which will be returned to Earth by future missions, could contain microfossils preserving the presence of ancient life.
Recent images taken by the rover show rocks and pebbles strewn across the crater floor, as well as a hill called Santa Cruz located about 1.5 miles from the rover.
Rover’s SuperCam investigates rocks
The rover is equipped with cameras and instruments that aid it in its rock investigations, including SuperCam, a laser instrument that has previously zapped certain rocks to determine their chemical makeup.
It is essential to determine the types of rocks in this area. If they are sedimentary, like sandstone, they likely formed around water and could contain minerals and sand, silt, or clay that preserves signs of past life called biosignatures.
Igneous rocks, which are formed by volcanic activity, provide an accurate picture of when they formed, acting as time stamps.
These rocks have been exposed to wind and radiation over time and covered with layers of sand and dust. In the field, a geologist would open a rock to find out more.
“When you look inside a rock, that’s where you see the story,” Ken Farley, Project Perseverance scientist at the California Institute of Technology, said in a statement.
Perseverance can’t quite take a hammer out of the rocks around it, but it has a tool called abrader on its robotic arm that can grind and flatten the surface of the rocks.
The rover’s instruments can then scan the interior of the rock to learn more about the chemicals and minerals it contains.
“The more rocks you look at, the more you know,” Farley said.
And the more the team knows, the better the samples they can ultimately collect with the drill on the rover’s arm.
Answers in the mudstones?
Perseverance, which landed on Mars on February 18, discovered the richness of the rocks nearby while helping the Ingenuity helicopter find its first airfield. The helicopter has moved to a new phase where it will demonstrate its capabilities over the next 30 days, flying to new airfields and acting as a scout, without interfering with the rover’s scientific operations.
Perseverance will spend the next few hundred soils, or Martian days, exploring a 2-kilometer patch of the Jezero Crater floor. Members of the rover’s science team believe they will find some of the oldest material on the Red Planet in the crater.
“These rocks are probably mudstones, once mud at the bottom of the lake, and they are very important to our investigation as this is the type of environment that we expect to be the most habitable by organisms that may have existed on Mars. billions of years ago, plus the ability to preserve biosignatures over the billions of years that followed, ”said Farley.
The rover will collect three or four samples in the area before heading northwest to the former dried up river delta.
Before this collection can begin, Perseverance must undergo further checks to prepare its sampling system and piloting capabilities. The team estimates that Perseverance will collect its first sample in July, said Jennifer Trosper, deputy project manager for the Perseverance rover at JPL.
Ingenuity will conclude flight operations no later than the end of August, allowing the rover team to wrap up their science activities and prepare for a communication failure between Mars and Earth in mid- October, when the two planets are on either side of the Sun.