On February 18, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on the surface of Mars. During the next two years of its main mission, the rover will search Jezero Crater (where it landed) for evidence of past life on Mars. This will consist of collecting soil and rock samples from the preserved delta feature, formed billions of years ago from sediments deposited by flowing water.
The question is, where should this possible evidence be looked for? One possible route the rover will take during its main mission is shown in a series of recent images provided by NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS). As shown in the image below, this path leads from the cliffs that form the edge of the delta, across its surface, to possible debris on the coast and to the edge of the crater.
One possible route endurance could be across the Jezero crater. Photo credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Jezero crater was chosen as the landing site for the Perseverance mission because scientists believe the area was once flooded with water. It was one of sixty candidate sites considered by a panel of mission team members and academics from around the world. After five years of research and research into potential locations, Jezero was recognized as the most promising location.
This is because Jezero has several features that are believed to be remnants of ancient environments that are believed to have been habitable at one time. Similar to the Gale Crater, in which the Curiosity Rover (Persevrerance’s sister mission) landed in 2012, these features formed in the presence of water and therefore offer clues to the past of Mars, which the flowing water could regularly support.
For example, the base of the delta’s cliff defines the outer edge of the deposition of sediments by the river that flowed into the crater billions of years ago (at a time when Mars was significantly warmer and had abundant flowing water on its surface). The surface of the delta and possible shorelines are likely places where fossilized bacteria will be found that the rover will cache for future retrieval.
Meanwhile, the 610 meter high crater rim marks the boundary of the old lake and most likely contains clues as to the height of the lake over time. Once it gets there, Perseverance will explore it and the surrounding plains to learn more about when the crater became a lake. It is also hoped that it will learn more about how and when the lake lost its water over time.
Endurance Rover Landing Ellipse in Jezero Crater. Photo credit: ESA / DLR / FU-Berlin / NASA / JPL-Caltech
The trail is several tens of kilometers and would keep the rover busy for the duration of its main mission. As a reference, the prominent crater in the delta (near the center of the image) measures around 1 km in diameter. In the event of a mission expansion – which, apart from problems, seems very likely – the heads of missions will look for another promising path.
Like its predecessors, Perseverance could explore Mars for many years to come! However, this mission will also carry out an unprecedented scientific operation in which the collected samples will be returned to Earth from a separate ESA mission. In this way, scientists will be able to analyze rocks and soils from Mars in earth laboratories in the coming decades.
Much like the lunar rocks returned by the Apollo astronauts, the study of these alien materials will lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of how the rocky planets of our solar system were formed, and perhaps even how life on Earth (and possibly on the Mars) began. . It promises to be an exciting time, that’s for sure!
Further reading: NASA