NASA said on Wednesday that the Perseverance Mars rover is preparing to collect its first rock samples from an ancient lakebed site because its mission to find signs of past life is starting in earnest.
This milestone is expected to occur within two weeks in a scientifically interesting area of Jezero crater called “crater fracture roughness.”
Ahead: I plan to collect the target location of my first Martian rock sample. I have everything I need to get the job done. The first is to collect detailed, close-up science of the rock, and then to take the core.
Why and how to sample here: https://t.co/MYw9RoDbGj pic.twitter.com/EPHJVmJH6n
-NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) July 21, 2021
“When Neil Armstrong collected the first sample from the Tranquility Sea 52 years ago, he started a process that will rewrite human understanding of the moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy director of science at NASA Headquarters.
“I fully expect that Perseverance’s first sample from Jezero Crater, and subsequent samples, will do the same to Mars.”
Project scientist Ken Farley told reporters that Perseverance landed on the red planet on February 18 and moved about 1 kilometer south of its landing site throughout the summer.
He said in a briefing: “Now we are studying the environment farther in the past-the past billions of years.”
The team believes that the crater was once the site of an ancient lake, which filled and dropped many times, which may create the necessary conditions for life.
Analyzing the samples will reveal clues about the chemistry and mineral composition of rocks-revealing information such as whether they were formed by volcanoes or originated in sediments.
In addition to filling the gaps in scientists’ knowledge of the geology of the area, the rover will also search for signs of ancient microorganisms that may exist.
First, Perseverance will deploy its 7-foot (2 m) long robotic arm to accurately determine the sampling location.
The rover will then use wear tools to scrape off the top layer of the rock, exposing the unweathered surface.
These will be analyzed by scientific instruments installed on the turret by Perseverance to determine the chemical and mineral composition and look for organic substances.
One of the instruments, called SuperCam, will fire a laser at the rock and then read the resulting plume.
Farley said that a small cliff containing fine layers of rock may be formed by lake mud, “those are good places to look for biological features,” although it will take several months before Perseverance reaches that outcrop.
Each rock Perseverance analysis will have an unaffected geological “twin”, which will be shoveled, sealed, and stored under its abdomen by the rover.
Ultimately, NASA is planning a return mission with the European Space Agency to collect stored samples and return them to Earth for laboratory analysis, sometime in the 2030s.
Only in this way can scientists say more confidently whether they have actually discovered signs of ancient life forms.