NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is using its robotic arm to search for signs of ancient microbial life.
The rover, which landed in Jezero Crater in February, had been functioning largely as a communications base between the autonomous Ingenuity Mars helicopter and the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) over the last couple of weeks, helping to document the rotorcraft’s historic flights.
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However, NASA scientists have continued to work in an effort to better understand the red planet’s environmental history, aiming to create a timeline surrounding when the crater’s lake formed and dried billions of years ago.
In order to do so, the arm’s WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and Engineering) camera has captured detailed shots of Martian rocks and the Mastcam-Z cameras have reportedly also studied the rocky terrain.
In March, NASA released audio recordings in which the SuperCam instrument’s laser can be heard impacting or “zapping” rock targets to detect their chemistry.
According to a Tuesday release, one of the questions researchers want to answer is whether the Mars rocks are sedimentary or have been formed by volcanic activity.
While igneous rocks are reportedly “more precise geological clocks” that will help to create an accurate timeline, sedimentary rocks are better at preserving biosignatures.
Though harsh winds, sand and dust have complicated the process, NASA said the rover’s arm can help to better understand rocks’ histories by using an abrader to wear away a rock’s surface and reveal its internal composition.
Next, the team can gather more chemical and mineralogical data using instruments on the arm like the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) spectrometer’s ultraviolet laser and PIXL’s (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) fluorescence spectrometer and high-resolution imager.
“When you look inside a rock, that’s where you see the story,” Perseverance’s Project Scientist Ken Farley said a statement.
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As the scientists examine more rocks and sediment, Perseverance will collect and cache samples for further study.
The best samples collected will be stored in special tubes and deposited on Mars before they can return to Earth during subsequent NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) missions.