NASA said Wednesday that 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.
This milestone is expected to happen within two weeks in a scientifically interesting area of Jezero Crater called “Crated Floor Fractured Rough”.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of science at NASA Headquarters, said: “When Neil Armstrong took the first samples from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would allow humanity to learn more about the Moon than ever before. Will write again.”
“I sincerely hope that the first samples of Perseverance from Jezero Crater, and those that follow, will do the same for Mars.”
Project scientist Ken Farley told reporters that Perseverance landed on the Red Planet on February 18, and moved about a kilometer south of its landing site over the summer.
“We are now looking at environments that are far ahead in the past – billions of years ago,” he said at a briefing.
The team believes the crater was once home to an ancient lake that filled and drained down several times, potentially creating the conditions necessary for life.
Analyzing the samples will provide clues about the chemical and mineral composition of the rocks – revealing things as if they were formed by volcanoes or are sedimentary in origin.
In addition to filling a gap in scientists’ geologic understanding of the region, the rover will also detect possible signs of ancient microbes.
First, Perseverance will deploy its 7-foot (two-meter) long robotic arm to determine where to sample it.
The rover will then use an abrasive tool to scrape off the top layer of rock, exposing non-weather surfaces.
These will be analyzed by Persistence’s turret-mounted scientific instruments to determine chemical and mineral composition and to look for organic matter.
One of the instruments, called SuperCam, will fire a laser at the rock and then take a reading of the resulting plume.
Farley said that a small rock that shelters rocks with finer layers may be made of lake soil, and “they are great places to see biosignatures,” although it takes a little more to reach that outcrop of persistence. It will take months.
Each rock solidity analysis will have an untouched geologic “twin” that the rover will scoop, seal and store under its belly.
Eventually, NASA is planning a return mission with the European Space Agency to collect archived samples and return them to Earth for laboratory analysis in the 2030s.
Only then will scientists be able to say with more confidence whether they have indeed found signs of ancient life forms.
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