The day is finally here. NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is about to start studying its primary location: the delta of an ancient river that billions of years ago flowed into Jezero Crater. Given how crucial water is to life on Earth, water-carved features on Mars are seen as a prime location for the search for ancient life on the Red Planet.
The rover will reach its first location, called Devils Tanyard, within the next couple of sols. A "sol" is a solar day on Mars and is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth. The stop is on the way to the Hawksbill gap within the delta front.
After Devils Tanyard, the team expects to complete four other stops until they reach Rocky Top, another location of interest. This trek will take the rover by different rock layers corresponding to different periods of formation of these ancient rocky features.
“After completing this first half of our walkabout, we plan on descending to sample at three of our favorite sites. With these three sample pairs, the team hopes to add to our Martian collectables a set of fine-grained clay-bearing mudstones that are good candidates for preserving organics and potential ancient microbes, as well as coarser grained sandstones to investigate material washed down from beyond Jezero and to constrain the timing of past lake activity,” Brad Garczynski, student collaborator of the Perseverance team at Purdue University, wrote in a NASA blog post.
Jezero Crater is about 45 kilometers (28 miles) across and is famous for the fan-shaped delta that Perseverance is about to explore. The region is rich in clays formed when water was still flowing and the whole crater has been filled with sediments.
“With each drive and sample, the team continues to learn more about this once watery crater and piece together the story written in the Martian rocks,” Garczynski explained.
Perseverance is equipped with many instruments to study materials on Mars but the rover is also collecting samples, which are expected to be flown to Earth sometime in the next decade, where they can be studied in greater detail.
The sample return mission will be a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency. A few samples have already been collected by Perseverance and they will be kept safe and sealed until they can be launched from the Martian surface all the way back to Earth.