Perseverance rover hits the dusty road to collect signs of ancient life on Mars

The Mars Perseverance rover will make several stops along a route in Jezero Crater designated by NASA to find the best rock and dust samples for future study of ancient life on the Red Planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

NASA’s Perseverance rover has begun its search for signs of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.

The six-wheeled scientist, as NASA calls it, will roll out southward across the dust of Mars in coming weeks to four different spots on a 1.5-square-mile sector of the Jezero Crater lakebed where it will dig up samples deemed ideal for study.

The samples will be put in tubes and held aboard the rover for several years until future missions are able to return them to Earth safely for study.

The space agency’s big brag is that its missions are mainly about science research, distinguishing it from the more commercial interests of SpaceX and Blue Origin. In that vein, nearly every Tweet, video and press conference from NASA and JPL tends to focus on an academic institution or entity partnered in its research—and there are hundreds of them from all over.

Often, NASA will describe some scientific principle or venture for a global audience of civilian scientists, including school children.  Recently, NASA created a panorama of the surface comprised of 992 individual images and 2.4 billion pixels that can be navigated over the internet.  It includes graphics to show direction and unusual features and is embedded below: 

With Perseverance and the Mars Helicopter Ingenuity, there have already been plenty of lessons for all in flight engineering, navigation and computing systems since the rover landed in February. The rover even successfully tested its oxygen-generating MOXIE instrument. Now, the rover begins its first science campaign, although there will still be chances to test technologies for future human and robotic exploration.

In the next few weeks, the Perseverance mission team will first drive the rover to a scenic overlook to survey old geologic features in Jezero while they also bring online the sampling systems and more automated navigation capabilities.

“We are…hitting the road,” said Jennifer Trosper, project manager for Perseverance, in a blog. She assumed the role on June 7, while her predecessor, Matt Wallace, moved to the position of JPL’s deputy director for planetary science.

There is actually a route planned for Perseverance with optional turnoffs to places, or “units,” already designated as Crater Floor Fractured Rough, Raised Ridges and Seitah North and South and Three Forks. Perseverance will have to deal with navigating around sand dunes.

The goal of the first science campaign has been to pick four locations that best describe Jezero’s early geologic history. When the science team observes with Perseverance’s sophisticated cameras that a location is just right, they will collect one or two samples. There are 43 sample tubes aboard Perseverance and up to eight will be filled with Mars broken rock and dust in the first campaign.  During the first campaign, Perseverance may travel up to three miles.

Astrobiologists Kevin Hand and Vivian Sun are co-leaders for the first science campaign. The first area being investigated was under at least 328 feet of water 3.8 billion years ago. “We don’t know what stories the rocks and layered outcrops will tell us, but we’re excited to get started,” Hand said.

After the first campaign, Perseverance will travel north and then west towards a location for its second campaign in the Jezero delta region where an ancient river and lake joined within the crater.  There, scientists hope to find minerals that could preserve fossils of ancient life that could be linked to biological processes.

Future NASA missions, perhaps starting in 2026, in cooperation with the European Space Agency, would collect the sealed samples and return them to Earth for analysis.

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