NASA’s Perseverance Rover begins searching for life on Mars

After testing all his instruments on his mechanical arm, the Perseverance The rover began the mission it was sent to Mars for: examining Martian dust and rocks for evidence of past life. Using its well-equipped robotic arm, the rover recorded its very first scientific readings of the dust that gives the planet its reddish appearance, NASA said Tuesday.

The range of instruments on the 7-foot (2-meter) mechanical arm, which includes sensors, x-ray and photography equipment, and more, was tested by the exploratory vehicle. In particular, its x-ray component, the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), provided extraordinary results while only testing was underway.

“We got our best analysis of the composition of Martian dust before even examining the rock,” said Abigail Allwood, PIXL principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in a statement. JPL, who built Perseverance, manages the operations of the rover.

Look deep in the rocks

This illustration shows NASA’s Perseverance rover operating on the surface of Mars.JPL-NASA

The size of a lunch box, PIXL is located at the end of the mechanical arm. In its first run, the instrument focused its X-rays on a small target for calibration located on the rover itself. He was able to discern the composition of the dust that had settled on the calibration target.

In addition to analyzing rocks using ultraviolet light and x-rays, Perseverance will also zoom in on tiny sections of rocky surfaces to acquire close-ups. This may allow him to obtain evidence of any past microbial activity; if there were any. With other instruments on its arm, PIXL is poised to discover more about the makeup of the planet by exploring several geological features over time.

According to scientists, billions of years ago Jezero Crater, where the rover landed, was a crater lake. the Perseverance will begin is data collection on the now dry and cracked soil of the prehistoric lake. “If life was there in Jezero Crater, proof of that life could be there,” Allwood said.

Trifecta of life seekers

PIXL

PIXL, one of seven instruments aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, is equipped with LED lights surrounding its aperture to take pictures of rocky targets in the dark. Using artificial intelligence, PIXL uses images to determine how far away it is from a target to be scanned.NASA / JPL-Caltech

PIXL works in combination with other attachments on the arm to provide a complete profile of the rock composition, textures and contours. While PIXL studies chemicals, two other instruments, SHERLOC and WATSON, map minerals. Short for “Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals”, SHERLOC uses a laser to identify the minerals present in the rock. WATSON, or “Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and Engineering,” captures close-up images to determine roundness, texture and grain size.

The images captured by WATSON have already provided valuable data on Martian rocks according to the researchers. This includes the size of the grains in the sediment, the color gamut, and also the existence of “cement” between the grains. This can provide vital information on the history of rock formation, water flow, and possibly ancient habitable environments. Thus, the combination of data from the three tools can help to gain insight into the environment and history of Jezero Crater.

“What is the bottom of the crater made of? What were the conditions on the bottom of the crater?” interviewed, Luther Beegle, principal investigator of SHERLOC. “This tells us a lot about the early days of Mars, and potentially how Mars formed. If we have any idea what the history of Mars looks like, we will be able to understand the potential to find evidence. of life, ”he added. he added.

Unravel the mystery of Mars

March

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took this close-up of a rocky target dubbed “Madman” using its WATSON camera at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. The image was taken on July 11, 2021, the 139th Martian, or sol, day of the mission.NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

There is no doubt that Perseverance boasts of several standalone skills such as Red Planet terrain navigation. However, the six-wheeled rover still requires the assistance of scientists on Earth to analyze the results and design future explorations.

“There are nearly 500 people in the scientific team. The number of participants in an action given by the rover is in the order of 100. It’s great to see these scientists agree to analyze the clues , prioritize each step and put the pieces of the Jezero science puzzle together, ”Beegle explained.

Being the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock samples, Perseverance will contribute to their return to Earth. The collected samples will be stored and sealed in sterile metal tubes on the surface of Mars, with a future mission obtaining them and taking them home for further analysis. “March 2020, in my opinion, is the best opportunity we will have in our lifetimes to answer this question,” said Kenneth Williford, associate scientist for the project. Perseverance.

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