With all the news about the landing and the first few months of operation of the Perseverance rover on Mars, it may come as a surprise that its actual scientific mission has not even begun. That changed on June 1, when the rover officially launched its first scientific mission by leaving its landing pad.
UT has reported on a variety of premieres made by the rover, including the first sound recordings on Mars when he first smashed a rock with his laser, the first use of his MOXIE experiment, and more recently the trials and tribulations of the Ingenuity helicopter. But when all is said and done, there is more scientific work to be done.
Video showing Perseverance’s current location and part of the area it will travel to on its first scientific mission.
Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS
A big job on Perseverance’s to-do list is collecting samples that will be returned to Earth later in the decade on the first Mars sample return mission. The rover carries 43 sample tubes that can be filled with interesting rocks or regolith that scientists want to take a closer look at.
Where these rocks and regolith come from is one of the most important considerations of the mission as a whole, and Perseverance’s first scientific mission will focus on two main areas of interest. The first stop will be the “Crater Floor Fractured Rough”, which will hopefully be given a more bizarre name, if only to make it easier for us science writers to talk about it in the future. For now, this stop can be thought of as the bottom of the Jezero crater where Perseverance landed. Almost 4 billion years ago it was covered with at least 100m of liquid water, and the geology of the region should reflect this much more humid past.
Astronomy Cast episode about the first 100 days of perseverance.
The bizarre second area of the journey is the Séítah unit. Means “walking on the sand” in Navajo. The area, filled with rocks, ridges, and sand dunes, could possibly have a more recent geological history than the samples found on the crater floor.
Navigating these two areas of interest is no easy task for a rover piloted from millions of kilometers away. So missionary scientists created an old road map to show the route the rover is about to take. The total route is expected to be between 2.5 km and 5 km and ends with a return to the “Octavia E. Butler” landing site after leaving some samples for the return journey for collection. From there, the rover will move into a second phase of scientific experimentation as it travels north and west to a delta region of the crater where a river once flowed into the lake that once occupied the area.
Planned map of the first (south) and second (north) science missions of Perseverance in Jezero Crater.
Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona
All of these areas could provide important clues to one of the rover’s great mission objectives – signs of life. It is precisely these types of environments that evidence of ancient life forms that might have lived on wetter, warmer Mars may still surface. Carbonates common in the delta region are known to have preserved fossils on Earth.
At this point in time, such evidence is wishful thinking, and even the collection of the specimens that might eventually contain this evidence is still months away. But Perseverance is finally ready to take the first step – or turn the wheel – on the way to collecting even more data from the bottom of an old Lake Mars bed.
JPL – Perseverance’s first road trip
JPL – NASA’s Perseverance Rover launches its first scientific campaign on Mars
UT – NASA’s Perseverance Rover: The Most Ambitious Space Mission Ever?
Image of the Séítah unit from one of the Ingenuity flights about 30 m above the surface.
Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech