The Mars rover Perseverance is preparing to collect its first rock sample at the site of an ancient lake bed as its mission to search for signs of past life begins in earnest, NASA said Wednesday.
The milestone is expected to occur within two weeks in a scientifically interesting region of Jezero Crater called the Cratered Floor Fractured Rough.
“When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA headquarters.
“I’m confident that the first Perseverance monster from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars.”
Perseverance landed on the Red Planet on Feb. 18 and moved about a mile south of the landing site over the summer, project scientist Ken Farley told reporters.
“Now we’re looking at environments much further in the past — billions of years in the past,” he said in a briefing.
The team believes the crater was once home to an ancient lake that was filled and collapsed multiple times, possibly creating the conditions for life.
Analysis of samples will reveal clues about the chemical and mineral makeup of the rocks — revealing things like whether they’re formed by volcanoes or are of sedimentary origin.
In addition to filling gaps in scientists’ geological understanding of the region, the rover will also look for possible signs of ancient microbes.
First, Perseverance will deploy its 2-meter-long robotic arm to determine exactly where to take the sample.
The rover will then use an abrasive tool to scrape off the top layer of the rock, exposing unweathered surfaces.
These will be analyzed by Perseverance’s scientific instruments on a turret to determine chemical and mineral composition and search for organic matter.
One of the instruments, called SuperCam, will fire a laser at the rock and then read the resulting plume.
Farley said a small cliff harboring finely layered rocks could have been formed from mud from the lake, and “those are very good places to look for biosignatures,” although it will be a few more months before Perseverance reaches that outcrop.
Each rock Perseverance analyzes will have a pristine geological “twin” that the rover will scoop, seal and store under its belly.
Ultimately, NASA plans a return mission with the European Space Agency to collect the stored samples and return them for laboratory analysis on Earth sometime in the 2030s.
Only then will scientists be able to say with more confidence whether they have really found signs of ancient life forms.
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