The Perseverance Mars rover is preparing to collect its first rock sample from the site of an ancient lake bed, as its mission to search for signs of past life begins in earnest, NASA said Wednesday.
The stage should take place in two weeks in a scientifically interesting region of Jezero crater called “Cratered Floor Fractured Rough”.
“When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he initiated a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the Moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA headquarters.
“I expect the first Perseverance sample from Jezero Crater, and those that follow, will do the same for Mars. “
Perseverance landed on the Red Planet on February 18 and moved over the summer about a mile south of its landing site, project scientist Ken Farley told reporters.
“Now we are looking at environments that are much further in the past – billions of years in the past,” he said in a briefing.
The team believe the crater once housed an ancient lake that repeatedly filled and sank, potentially creating the conditions for life.
Analysis of the samples will reveal clues to the chemical and mineral makeup of the rocks, revealing things as if they were formed by volcanoes or if they are of sedimentary origin.
In addition to filling gaps in scientists’ geological understanding of the area, the rover will also look for possible signs of ancient microbes.
First, Perseverance will deploy its 7-foot (two-meter) long robotic arm to determine precisely where to collect its sample.
The rover will then use an abrasion tool to scrape the top layer of rock, exposing the unaltered surfaces.
These will be analyzed by scientific instruments mounted on the Perseverance turret to determine the chemical and mineral composition and search for organic matter.
One of the instruments, called a SuperCam, will shoot a laser at the rock and then take readings of the resulting plume.
Farley said a small cliff that housed thin-layered rocks may have been formed from lake sludge, and “these are great places to look for biosignatures,” although it will take a few more months before that. Perseverance does not reach this outcrop.
Each rock analyzed by Perseverance will have an intact geological “twin” that the rover will pick up, seal and store under its belly.
Eventually, NASA is planning a return mission with the European Space Agency to collect the stored samples and send them back for laboratory analysis on Earth in the 2030s.
Only then will scientists be able to say with more confidence if they have really found signs of ancient life forms.
© 2021 AFP