Perseverance has officially begun its search for signs of life on Mars

The instrument package known as SuperCam aboard the Perseverance Mars rover has collected its first samples in the search for past life on the red planet, mission scientists said Wednesday.

The return to Earth within a few years of the rocks and soil it recovers “will give scientists the Holy Grail of planetary exploration,” said Jean-Yves le Gall, president of the French National Center for Space Studies (CNES). , which mainly built the mobile observatory. he commented via a YouTube broadcast.

These “pieces of Mars,” he said, may “finally answer this fascinating and fundamental question: was there ever life anywhere else besides Earth?”

After seven months in space, NASA’s Perseverance rover gently landed on Martian soil last month and sent out black-and-white images revealing the rocky fields of Jezero Crater, just north of the equator of Mars.

“The critical component of this astrobiology mission is SuperCam,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Mounted on the rover’s mast, the shoebox-sized apparatus is packed with spectrometers, a laser, and an audio recording device to analyze the chemistry, mineralogy, and molecular composition of the famous red surface of Mars.

The SuperCam laser can attack objects smaller than the tip of a pencil from a distance of up to seven meters (20 feet) and allows observation of points beyond the reach of the rover’s robotic arm.

“The laser is uniquely capable of remotely removing dust from the surface, giving all your instruments a clear view of targets,” said Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) engineer and SuperCam principal investigator.

The mission suffered a serious setback before takeoff, revealed Scott Robinson of LANL, who said more than 500 engineers and scientists contributed to the project.

“The optics of the mast unit were destroyed in a freak accident just four months before delivery,” he explained. “The team was quick to gather spare parts to rebuild the telescope from scratch.”

The accident turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

A ‘strange accident’

When reassembling the unit, engineers discovered what Robinson described as a “Hubble-like” defect in the original mirror.

Shortly after the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, operators realized that the observatory’s primary mirror had an aberration, which was later corrected, affecting the clarity of the images.

Scientists believe that around 3.5 billion years ago, the crater Perseverance landed in was home to a river that emptied into a deep lake, depositing sediment in a fan-shaped delta.

The rover is tasked with collecting more than two dozen rock and soil samples in sealed tubes, to be sent back to Earth sometime in the 2030s for analysis.

1012 PIA24492 LabelingSuperCam is also taking close-up photos of rocky targets on Mars. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / LANL / CNES / CNRS / ASU / MSSS)

At the size and weight of an SUV, Perseverance is equipped with a seven-foot (two-meter) robotic arm, 19 cameras, two microphones, and other state-of-the-art instruments.

A small unmanned helicopter hidden under its belly will attempt the first powered flight on another planet in a few weeks.

An instrument on board is designed to produce oxygen from Mars’ primarily carbon dioxide atmosphere, something that would greatly facilitate human habitation.

Perseverance is the fifth rover to put wheels on Mars, all from NASA. The feat was first accomplished in 1997.

Its main mission lasts just over two years, but the rover could remain operational well beyond that.

© Agence France-Presse


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