NASA's Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image February 18 of the area behind it using its onboard Rear Right Hazard Avoidance Camera. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Perseverance rover starts rolling on Mars

In Sky News This Week: Researchers prepare for great scientific opportunities as NASA’s newest rover lands on the Red Planet

Canadian researchers are joining a large group of international scientists on the newly-landed Perseverance Mars mission, ready to learn more about the Red Planet’s chances for life.

After launching into space July 30, 2020, Perseverance touched down today in the Jezero Crater. The mission’s goal is to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith for a possible return to Earth. 

Among the scientists working on the mission are the University of Alberta’s Chris Herd, who will assist with selecting appropriate rocks to set aside for a possible sample return mission, and Brock University’s Mariek Schmidt, who will contribute to targeting rocks on the surface for analyses.

Other Canadians involved in the mission are:

  • Farah Alibay, a systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Erin Gibbons, PhD candidate and Vanier Scholar at McGill University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
  • Tim Haltigin, Canadian Space Agency senior mission scientist in planetary exploration
  • Richard Leveillé, adjunct professor in McGill University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and and an associate member of the McGill Space Institute
  • Kim Tait, a geologist and senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum

If all goes according to plan, this once-in-a-decade opportunity will provide researchers many years of Martian investigations using an array of cameras, lasers and other scientific equipment to learn more about the ancient delta that filled Jezero Crater 3.5 billion years ago. Scientists will not only get a sense of what may have lived there, but what Mars used to be like when water existed on the surface — and how comparable it has been to our own life-friendly planet, Earth.

“It has been almost four decades since a space exploration mission has explicitly looked for signs of Martian life,” Gibbons stated in a McGill University press release. “All of the expertise and knowledge we as a science community have gained in that time will come to bear on the surface of Mars starting this Thursday, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic!”

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image of the area in front of and behind it February 18 using its hazard avoidance cameras. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Earth is a very hospitable planet, and has been for billions of years, said Perseverance deputy project scientist Ken Williford, in a televised NASA briefing February 16 about the mission science.

“Life obviously thrives here today. But are we alone in this sort of vast cosmic desert? You know, just flying through space? Or is life much more common? Does it just emerge whenever and wherever the conditions are? Right? Big basic questions. And we don’t know the answers yet. We’re really on the verge of being able to potentially answer these enormous questions.”

Williford showed a stramotolites sample that he brought back from a 2.7-billion lake deposit on Earth, which has a dome of microbial “mats” that could represent what existed on Mars, too. 

“These are structures that form when little microscopic, single-celled organisms, like bacteria, join together in communities and layer one on top of the other, and sometimes exude these sticky substances that can trap and bind sediment particles there,” he explained. “The organisms themselves can also stimulate the precipitation of minerals, thereby entombing themselves — sort of making their own microbial fossil — which … can be preserved for billions of years.”

Perseverance’s array of instruments is vast, but one example of what it can do is using an instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) to tease out more clues about the rocks for evidence of organics and minerals changed by watery environments. It is mounted on a robotic arm that can bring it as close as five centimeters above the surface of Mars.

“We’re able to take a very fine microscopic image, and we’re able to take our laser and raster it across the surface and identify organic material, minerals and alike,” SHERLOC principal investigator Luther Beegle said at the same press conference. 

SHERLOC is designed to work alongside Perseverance’s instruments to “tell us a lot more about the rock than just doing one instrument by itself,” Beegle explained. For example, it can be used with SuperCam, which identifies chemical composition of rocks and regolith on Mars, and hunts for organic molecules that could show signs of life.

Alternatively, SHERLOC can pair up with PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) that will measure rock chemical composition on an even finer scale, Beegle explained. How the investigation proceeds will depend on the scientific questions being posed at a particular moment in the mission.

“We scan across [the rock] and where you think you [may] see … microorganisms on the outside of the rock,” he explained of one particular kind of investigation, which would focus on identifying organic molecules. “You can see them in cracks. You can see them in fissures, which is where you would think that organisms would live because they have accessibility to both water and nutrients.”

Perseverance is just the latest in a suite of rover investigations by NASA to seek out habitable environments on Mars. The still-running Curiosity mission landed in 2012 and eventually found evidence of not only water, but also organic molecules. Previous to that, the Spirit and Opportunity twin rovers of 2004 found abundant evidence of water-altered rocks and minerals in their respective landing areas. 

Adding on to Perseverance’s work are numerous other landers, orbiters and rovers that investigate Mars processes from the atmosphere to the underground. Just this month, in fact, two more missions have safely arrived at the Red Planet: the atmosphere-focused Hope mission from the United Arab Emirates, and the Tianwen-1 mission from China that will use an orbiter, lander and rover to probe multiple layers of Mars, including searching for water reserves underground.

Sky News This Week is a biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.