NASA’s newest generation of rover will touch down on Mars on Thursday (Feb. 18) if all goes to plan, virtually bringing hundreds of experts to the Red Planet’s surface as well.
The Perseverance rover will extend the agency’s quest to find habitable environments on the Red Planet, which has been ongoing since dawn of Mars exploration in the 1960s. Perseverance’s headline mission is to find samples that could show signs of habitability or life, and to cache those for a future sample-return mission that could start as early as the late 2020s.
But there is much more subtlety to the rover’s work. Perseverance will carry a suite of cameras and instruments that each have their own tasks to accomplish, as the rover shows scientists the greater environment around Jezero Crater. It also will carry a test helicopter, Ingenuity, which will seek to demonstrate flight on Mars on the first time for future scouting opportunities.
The rover has seven science instruments (listed in detail here) that together, will find “information about Martian geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions, and potential biosignatures,” according to NASA.
Some of the instruments have heritage in past Mars missions, such as on the powerful Curiosity rover that landed in 2012 – a rover that found abundant evidence of water and organics on the surface, among its ongoing achievements. Curiosity came to Mars with an earlier version of Mastcam-Z, a powerful panoramic camera. But some of Perseverance’s instruments are wholly new to Mars exploration, such as the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument that will test oxygen generation on the surface.
With many dozens of scientists all performing their own investigations, a short article cannot capture the breadth of work that Perseverance will bring to the community. One Canadian example, though, is that of newly selected participating scientist Mariek Schmidt, an adjunct professor at Western University and full professor at Brock University.
Schmidt will use two other instruments on Perseverance called Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry/PIXL (an X-ray spectrometer) and Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC). Her goal is to better understand the different contributions to rock chemistry, such as igneous grains and secondary alteration.
She already is well-used to examining Martian samples as a team member for Curiosity’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument, which uses two kinds of radiation to measure types and amounts of chemical elements. APXS had higher resolution than past instruments, Schmidt told SpaceQ, but it was still difficult to pull apart the different contributions to the surface on a rock.
“For PIXL, it’s a 100-micron spot,” she said, which is much higher resolution than APSX and will allow scientists to zero in on perhaps, one spot completely covered by dust and another spot that is dust-free. “We’ll be able to tease out some really cool trends,” she added.
High-resolution investigations of rocks on Mars feed into Schmidt’s work on rocks on our home planet. She investigates volcanic fields in glacial lake settings, particularly fluvial lakes in western North America. To summarize these complex geological settings quickly, roughly 15,000 years ago basaltic volcanoes erupted in that region and the deposits left behind are glassy due to being quenched by lake water.
“I want to look at microscale variability in terms of trace elements of isotopes to really understand trends, and also dating rocks. That’s a crucial thing, establishing a chronology,” Schmidt said of her research. On Earth, she also looks regularly at volcanic rocks that have been biogenically altered, or “eaten by microbes.” She added, “What I’m really interested in – what I’d really like to be able to find – would be features similar to that on Mars.”
Evidence of microbial activity and rock chronology on Mars, however, would likely require that sample return mission. A typical rover mission can only carry so much instrumentation with it, and it is also limited by matters such as power and the sheer distance in communications back to Earth.
Instruments on Earth can thus provide higher resolution and in at least some senses, would allow investigations to proceed more quickly. That said, quarantine protocols to protect Earth from rocks from a potentially habitable planet would present some logistical challenges. These protocols would need to be followed closely, to ensure safety for all participating lab technicians and scientists, among others.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Planetary Protection Center of Excellence is already working hard on quarantine protocols, including spacecraft cleanliness and preventing contamination of planetary environments from Earth. “Backward” contamination is also in its mandate, meaning “extraterrestrial contamination … by way of sample return missions,” according to the website.
Schmidt said she is also looking forward to bringing the next generation of Mars researchers into the Perseverance mission, including at least one masters student and post-doctoral student. Such opportunities are common pathways for students to gain experience in space, and many of today’s scientists started their work on Mars missions in precisely that same way.
Another participating Canadian scientist is Chris Herd, a Perseverance mission scientist who is also a professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alberta. He was chosen to be one of two returned sample scientist representatives on the mission’s project science group, according to the Canadian Space Agency, last August.
“In this role, he will be part of the team responsible for making critical operational and scientific decisions for the mission,” CSA said of Herd’s contribution, adding that he “will contribute his expertise in the analysis of igneous rocks and Martian meteorites to select samples that are most likely to provide key information about Mars’ geological history.”