August 4, 2021

NASA Perseverance Rover Now Ready to Actively Look For Evidence of Life on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18. Since then, it has been in a shakedown phase, when it is being tested to ensure that all of its sophisticated components are working correctly.

It has seen a sunset, rode a helicopter, listened to itself move about, ingested Mars’ air to generate breathable oxygen, and much more during that period.

On Jun. 1, the mission’s commissioning phase was completed. Everything functions as it should. Now, this car-sized nuclear-powered laser-eyed mobile astrobiology lab is getting serious.

(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Portrait of Perseverance and Ingenuity (Artist’s Concept)

Prelude: Flying Over Jerezo Crater

The rover’s primary goal is to find evidence that Mars has sustained life in the past or is capable of doing so presently. It will research the geology and chemistry of the area around its landing site (dubbed “Octavia E. Butler” after the famed science fiction novelist) to see if anything was ever fruitful and proliferated there.

NASA carefully selected the landing site. Perseverance landed in the Jezero Crater, a 50-kilometer-wide crater that was once a lake of standing water several billion years ago. Minerals observed from orbit are consistent with having developed in water, and it is much clearer geologically: a massive fluvial delta can be seen in the northwest corner, indicating a river poured into the crater, and a comparable exit can be found on the crater’s opposite side.

Perseverance is close to the delta and has been mapping it from the surface (and the air, thanks to Ingenuity) to assist scientists and engineers on Earth in planning its path. It has already traveled several hundred meters, and it will travel much further in the next Mars year (about two Earth years).

ALSO READ: NASA’s Perseverance Rover Now on Self-Driving Mode; Thanks to AutoNav Feature!

Surveying Some of the Oldest Geologic Features

Along the way, it can investigate the terrain with a variety of instruments, including a laser that can vaporize rock, various detectors that can analyze the chemical content of rocks, and a drill that can extract samples from the surface if a particularly interesting area is discovered.

What exactly will scientists be on the lookout for? Past or current signs of life. Suppose there are microbial mats in the Jezero lake bed, these will have a variety of features that can be identified in the lab. And if scientists discover them, that is another story.

Daily Galaxy said Perseverance will examine a nearby section of the crater known as the Sétah unit (Navajo for “amidst the sand”; how exquisite!) This is a promising area since it has some of Jezero’s oldest geological rocks, including bedrock and sedimentary layers above it. Perseverance is likely to retrieve samples from the landing location and then return to it.

Then, presumably, it will continue on to Three Forks, which is located at the bottom of the vast delta.

How Will Perseverance Collect Samples?

NASA said the rover has a complicated mechanism in place to collect the samples. According to the space agency, the 2-meter robot arm first deploys a drill to recover a core sample from Mars’ surface. The drill and sample are then put into a tube that NASA has meticulously cleaned on Earth to ensure that no evidence of terrestrial life remains in it, resulting in a spotless sample of Mars.

The contents of the tube are then scanned. The sample is compressed with a ramrod before being inspected again to determine its volume. After that, the tube is hermetically sealed and placed back into storage. The rover was launched to Mars with 43 tubes in the hopes of collecting at least a dozen samples.

The rover’s storage is only temporary, NASA said. Scientists and engineers on Earth will eventually discover a location on the surface (which NASA dubbed the sample cache depot) where the tubes can be stored until future missions come along, pick them up, and return them to Earth.

It is essential to get the samples back to Earth. The rover’s capabilities are impressive, but they are restricted; we can only transmit so much to Mars. Bringing chunks of Mars to Earth means being able to analyze them using more complex techniques, and having them around in the future as more advanced technology is created.

RELATED ARTICLE: NASA’s Mars Ingenuity Rover Survives Most Nerve-Wracking, Ninth Flight Conquers Steep Slopes in Red Planet

Check out more news and information on Space on Science Times.