After months of spaceflight, an 8-minute planetary plunge, and weeks of Mars exploration, NASA’s Perseverance rover is starting its major scientific job: drilling out a finger-size core of martian rock from a former lakebed for return to Earth. If all goes nicely, the first drilling pattern will likely be collected by early August, the agency announced today.
Perseverance has operated nicely since its February touchdown, and through its latest drive, the rover has turned on its autonomous navigation, permitting it to cowl extra terrain than when beneath pure human operation. The rover has additionally examined its rock-storage system, feeding a sampling tube that it stored within the drill bit since touchdown, to seize ambient contamination, again into the robotic arm in its guts. There the tube was first imaged after which sealed for storage. “The great news is that it all worked perfectly,” says Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance’s undertaking supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We are ready to sample.”
Now, 1 kilometer south of its touchdown web site, Perseverance has reached the spot the place it would drill what its working crew calls paver stones—flat, white, dust-coated rocks discovered all through a lot of the ground of Jezero crater. This terrain is believed to be the oldest within the crater. But it stays unclear whether or not this panorama was deposited by the lake or as a substitute formed by volcanic flows, the latter of which might seize, with radioactive components, an correct date of the lake’s existence. Recent close-up photographs taken of the paver stones fail to resolve the eventualities: The rocks are lined with sand grains and pebbles, together with some kind of purplish coating, confounding distant measurements, says Ken Farley, the mission’s undertaking scientist and a geologist on the California Institute of Technology.
In the subsequent week or so, the rover will unleash one instrument that might assist reply this puzzle: an abrasion bit mounted on the finish of its 2-meter-long arm. After grinding into the rock, the arm will blow compressed fuel to clear away the grit, giving a transparent glimpse of the underlying rock. The rover can then use its arm-mounted digital camera and laser and x-ray probes to expose its construction and mineralogy. “I’m pretty confident we will be able to answer this question,” Farley says.
Whether the rocks are volcanic or sedimentary, after Perseverance performs the abrasion process, the crew will direct the rover to drill and acquire a core pattern of the pavers, focusing on a rock that’s common in chemistry, mineralogy, and texture. The chalk-size core will likely be saved in an ultraclean metallic tube, one of 38 samples that the rover finally collects, with about 30 of these probably to be returned to Earth by later missions. For now, it would reside within the rover’s stomach till later within the mission, when it would probably be deposited in a cache on the floor close to the crater’s rim a yr and a half from now.
Perseverance has already noticed some surprises about Jezero crater, together with the billions-of-years-old fossilized delta to its west that’s the rover’s vacation spot subsequent yr. Midway up the delta entrance, there are distinctive layered deposits that present the lake was fairly excessive, quiet, and secure for a very long time, Farley says. But even greater up, from a time later within the lake’s historical past, there are 1-meter-wide clean boulders that might solely have been carried by floodwaters. This suggests the lake might have seen distinct phases in its life. This suits right into a larger picture of the planet’s history, from when lakes had been frequent on the floor to a colder time when there have been solely periodic floods, Farley says.
Some exams of this speculation might come from the paver stones or Perseverance’s subsequent goal, Séítah, a area of sand dunes and ridges to its west that the car-size rover has skirted previous. Seen from orbit to be wealthy in olivine, a volcanic mineral, and carbonates, which may type when olivine is uncovered to water and carbon dioxide, Séítah is a barrier and a possibility—the rover can’t drive by it to attain the delta with out getting caught, nevertheless it has unexpectedly complicated geology, together with terrain which may protect indicators of previous life. After the paver stones, the Perseverance crew has devised an incursion from above and behind to entry its secrets and techniques.
First, the Ingenuity helicopter, in its ninth flight earlier this month, scouted throughout Séítah in a 625-meter journey, breaking information for flight length and pace earlier than touchdown on the opposite facet of its dunes. The helicopter photographed the intersection of Séítah with the paver unit that Perseverance is at present exploring—necessary to confirming whether or not the pavers are, in reality, older. And it additionally scouted fractures that might maintain proof of whether or not historic subsurface habitats existed in Jezero.
Meanwhile, from afar, Perseverance has spied tremendous layering in Séítah’s ridges, together with a distinguished 40-meter-tall plateau dubbed Kodiak that’s, in all chance, a remnant of the delta’s additional attain into the lakebed. Such layering might be attributable to mudstones, which smother and protect life on Earth. But the layers might have a volcanic origin, as nicely—and so the rover will loop south round Séítah later this yr, nudging right into a flat house the place it might probably safely pattern.
Once the Séítah marketing campaign is finished, Perseverance will backtrack all the way in which north to its touchdown web site, “putting the pedal to the metal,” Trosper says. And from the touchdown web site, the rover will head north then west on a protected route to the looming cliff of the principle delta—and the life-trapping muds entombed inside it.