June is a fine time for a Martian road trip if you’re a robotic rover.
Perseverance began driving away from its Octavia E. Butler landing site on June 1. The Mars rover left the scenic overlook where it captured images and video of the Ingenuity helicopter’s flights and is heading for another one that will reveal some of the oldest geologic features of Jezero Crater.
The crater, which hosted an ancient lake 3.9 billion years ago, could contain evidence of ancient microbial life if it ever existed on Mars.
Along the way, the rover will continue flexing and preparing to explore Jezero Crater by testing and fine-tuning its auto-navigation and sampling systems. The samples Perseverance collects, which could contain microfossils, will be returned to Earth in the 2030s.
Perseverance has already checked off some impressive achievements since landing on February 18. It has successfully generated oxygen on Mars, supported the first flights of the Ingenuity helicopter, captured audio of Mars using its microphones and taken more than 75,000 images of its surroundings.
“We are putting the rover’s commissioning phase as well as the landing site in our rearview mirror and hitting the road,” said Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.
“Over the next several months, Perseverance will be exploring a 1.5-square-mile (4-square-kilometer) patch of crater floor. It is from this location that the first samples from another planet will be collected for return to Earth by a future mission,” Trosper said.
Perseverance is officially starting its main science mission to study Jezero Crater and piece together the geologic and climate history of the area, as well as collect rock and dirt samples.
The scenic route
The first few hundred sols, or Martian days, of the mission will be spent exploring some of the deepest and oldest layers of exposed bedrock in the crater. Perseverance will start with the area of Jezero scientists have named Crater Floor Fractured Rough, as well as Séítah, which means “amidst the sand” in the Navajo language. Séítah is full of intriguing features besides bedrock, including ridges, layered rocks and sand dunes.
“To do justice to both units in the time allotted, the team came up with the Martian version of an old auto club-style map,” said Kevin Hand, an astrobiologist at JPL, in a statement. “We have our route planned, complete with optional turnoffs and labeled areas of interest and potential obstructions in our path.”
Hand is a co-lead of this science campaign with JPL planetary scientist and systems engineer Vivian Sun.
Séítah, which is shaped like a mitten, is not without obstacles — the main one being sand dunes. Perseverance will use a boundary line between the site and the Crater Floor Fractured Rough to navigate this area. Occasionally, the rover may venture into Séítah if specific areas of interest appear.
“Starting with the Crater Floor Fractured Rough and Seitah geologic units allows us to start our exploration of Jezero at the very beginning,” Hand said. “This area was under at least 100 meters (328 feet) of water 3.8 billion years ago. We don’t know what stories the rocks and layered outcrops will tell us, but we’re excited to get started.”
The science team will instruct the rover to collect one or two samples from this area and determine four areas of interest that help tell the history of Mars. This science campaign will wrap up once Perseverance returns to its landing site, having traveled between 1.6 and 3.1 miles (2.6 and 5 kilometers) and filling up to eight of the 43 sample tubes the rover carries.
This will be followed by a second science campaign where the rover travels northwest to the ancient river delta that flowed into the crater.
This unique intersection may contain evidence of carbonates, or minerals that can preserve signs of ancient life.
And the most exciting part? Perseverance is just getting started.