NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance spacecraft has begun searching for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet. By bending its mechanical arm to a height of 7 feet (2 m), the rover tested the sensitive detector it was carrying, and made its first scientific reading. In addition to analyzing the rock using X-rays and ultraviolet light, the six-wheeled scientist will zoom in to take close-up images of small sections of the rock’s surface that may show evidence of past bacterial activity.
The X-ray instrument called PIXL, or Planetary Instrument for Lithium X-Ray Chemistry, gave unexpectedly strong scientific results during its tests, said Abigail Allwood, PIXL principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. A lunchbox-sized instrument is placed at the end of the arm, and X-rays are fired at a small calibration target – used to test the device’s settings – on top of the Perseverance and is able to determine the composition of the Martian dust adhering to the target.
“We get the best analysis of Martian dust composition even before looking at the rocks,” Allwood said.
This is just a small part of what PIXL hopes to reveal, along with other arm equipment, as it heads towards promising geological features over the coming weeks and months.
Experts say Jezero Crater was a crater lake billions of years ago, making it the landing site of choice for perseverance. The hole had long since dried up, and the plow was now crossing the broken red floor.
“If life existed at Jezero Crater, evidence of life might be there,” said Allwood, lead member of the Perevering Arm Science team.
To obtain a detailed profile of rock texture, stroke, and composition, PIXL chemical maps across rocks can be combined with mineral maps generated by the SHERLOC instrument and its partner WATSON. SHERLOC — short for Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals — uses an ultraviolet laser to identify specific minerals in rock, while WATSON takes close-up images that scientists can use to determine grain size, rotation, and texture, all of which can help determine how rock formations.
Scientists say that early WATSON records have yielded various data from Martian rocks, such as variations in color, grain size in sediments, and even the presence of “cement” between the grains. These details can provide important clues about the formation history, water flow, and potentially habitable ancient environment of Mars. And in combination with those at PIXL, they can provide a broader picture of the environment and even the history of Jezero Crater.
“What are pit floors made of? What are the conditions like on the pit floor?” asked Luther Beegle of JPL, SHERLOC’s principal investigator. “This tells us a lot about the early days of Mars, and perhaps how Mars formed. If we have an idea of what the history of Mars was like, we will be able to understand if we can find evidence of life.”
While the rover has significant autonomous capabilities, such as self-driving across Earth to Mars, hundreds of Earth scientists are still involved in analyzing the findings and planning further investigations.
“There were about 500 people on the science team,” Beagle said. “The number of participants in each exploratory act was on the order of 100. It’s great to see these scientists come to an agreement on analyzing clues, prioritizing each step, and putting together the pieces of the Jezero science puzzle.”
This will be critical when the Mars 2020 rover Perseverance collects its first samples to finally return to Earth. It will be sealed with an ultra-pure metal tube on the Martian surface so future missions can collect it and send it back to Earth for further analysis.
Despite decades of investigating the question of the possibility of life, the Red Planet stubbornly keeps its secrets.
“March 2020, in my opinion, is the best opportunity we will ever have in our lives to answer that question,” said Kenneth Williford, Deputy Project Scientist for Perseverance.
Allwood said the geological details were crucial to putting indications of possible life in context, and to verifying scientists’ ideas about how a second example of the origin of life might have emerged.
Combined with other instruments on the rover, the detectors on the arm, including the SHERLOC and WATSON, could make mankind’s first discovery of extraterrestrial life.
More about mission
Astrobiology is one of the main goals of persistence missions to Mars, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will mark the planet’s geological and climatic past, pave the way for human exploration of the red planet, and be the first mission to collect and store rocks and funeral rites (Shattering rock and dust).
NASA’s next mission, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), will send a spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission is part of NASA’s Lunar-to-Mars Exploration Approach, which includes the Artemis mission to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by the NASA-run California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, builds and operates the rover operations.
Photo: ‘Delta Scarp’ Jezero Crater
For more information on Perseverance, please see mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/ and nasa.gov/perseverance.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
quote: Signs of life on Mars? The journey of perseverance in search begins (2021, 20 July), retrieved 20 July 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-07-life-mars-perseverance-rover.html
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