NASA finally let Perseverance stretch its arms and do some work

NASA fancy new Perseverance rover has been sitting on Mars since late February. It landed perfectly and everything has been going well in the months since then, but it’s had a lot to do before it could begin conducting serious science. Top of the list was the deployment of the Mars helicopter Ingenuity, and while the rover has been allowed to roam the area where Ingenuity was performing its flight tests, it couldn’t stray too far because it had to be close enough to record video of the flights from the ground.

Now that Ingenuity has demonstrated much of what it can do and has flown to a new area where Perseverance will eventually head, the rover has a bit of time to put its high-tech instruments to good use. In a new blog post, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reveals that Perseverance recently used some of its tools, including a high-resolution camera and laser zapper, to begin studying the rocks that sit beneath its wheels.

NASA picked the landing location of Perseverance for a reason. The location, which is inside of a massive impact site called the Jezero Crater, is believed to have once been a lake. If the theories that Mars once had an abundance of water on its surface are true, the Jezero Crater would have collected a lot of that water and perhaps even served as a home to aquatic life. By studying the rocks on the surface of the crater, scientists can get a better idea of where they came from, and whether they were created by sediment that settled and hardened over time.

As NASA explains, there are two possibilities for the rocks, and scientists are eager to classify them:

One important question scientists want to answer: whether these rocks are sedimentary (like sandstone) or igneous (formed by volcanic activity). Each type of rock tells a different kind of story. Some sedimentary rocks – formed in the presence of water from rock and mineral fragments like sand, silt, and clay – are better suited to preserving biosignatures, or signs of past life. Igneous rocks, on the other hand, are more precise geological clocks that allow scientists to create an accurate timeline of how an area formed.

Sedimentary rocks would be great for searching for signs of ancient life. On Earth, sandstone can hold all manner of clues about long-extinct species, and the same could be true on Mars. If the rocks were formed by volcanic activity, they aren’t likely to serve as a time capsule of ancient life, but would still be useful in other ways.

As the mission progresses, Perseverance will observe and test many different rocks in locations all over the Jezero Crater. Even if the first rocks return results suggesting they were created from flowing lava, other locations in the crater could still be covered in sedimentary rock.

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