On Mars, the year of surprise and discovery for NASA’s rover and helicopter

A year ago, NASA’s Perseverance rover was accelerating to smash into Mars, approaching its destination after a 290-million-mile, seven-month journey from Earth.

On February 18 last year, the spacecraft carrying the probe penetrated the Martian atmosphere at a speed of 13,000 miles per hour. In just seven minutes – what NASA engineers call “seven minutes of terror” – it had to take off A series of maneuvers to gently lay persevere on the surfacee.

Due to minutes of radio communication delays interrupting the solar system, the people who were at the mission control center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California were just spectators that day. If something goes wrong, they won’t have any time to try to fix it, and the $2.7 billion mission to search for evidence that something lived on the Red Planet, would have ended up in a freshly dug crater.

But perseverance had an excellent performance, Send exhilarating video footage home as it lands. NASA has added to its group of robots exploring Mars.

“The car itself performs very well,” said Jennifer Trosper, director of the Perseverance Project.

Twelve months later, persistence is inside A 28-mile-wide crater known as Jezero. From the terrain, it is clear that more than three billion years ago, Jezero was a body of water roughly the size of Lake Tahoe, with rivers flowing from west to outward to east.

The first thing Perseverance did was deploy the Ingenuity, a small robotic helicopter and the first flying machine of this type to take off on another planet. Perseverance also demonstrated a technology to generate oxygen that will be necessary when astronauts finally reach Mars.

The rover then set out on a diversion from its original exploration plans to study the floor of the crater it had landed in. It turns out that the rocks there are not what the scientists expected. I ran into problems several times when trying to collect rock cores – cylinders the size of chalk sticks – that would eventually be returned to Earth by a future mission. The engineers were able to solve the problems and most everything is working fine.

“It’s been a very exciting, and sometimes stressful, year,” said Joel Horowitz, a professor of Earth sciences at Stony Brook University in New York who is a member of the mission’s science team. “The pace of work was absolutely amazing.”

After months of sifting through the crater floor, the mission team is now preparing to head to the main science event: the exploration of a dry river delta along the western edge of Jezero.

This is where scientists expect to find sedimentary rocks likely to contain massive finds, and perhaps even signs of ancient Martian life — if any ancient Martian life is present.

“Deltas, at least on Earth, are habitable environments,” said Amy Williams, a professor of geology at the University of Florida and a member of the Perseverance science team. “There is water. There is active sediment that is carried from a river to a lake.”

Such sediments can capture and hold carbon particles associated with life. “It’s an excellent place to look for organic carbon,” said Dr. Williams. “So we hope that the organic carbon original to Mars will be concentrated in those layers.”

Perseverance never landed more than a mile from the delta. Even from a distance, the eagle-eye camera can reveal the expected sedimentary layers. There were also boulders, some the size of cars, sitting on the delta, and boulders that washed into the crater.

“It all tells a great story,” said Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University.

The data confirm that what the orbital images suggested is a river delta is indeed that and that the history of water here is complex. The rocks, which almost certainly came from the surrounding heights, indicate periods of violent flooding at Jezero.

It wasn’t just a slow, gentle sedimentation of the silt, sand and mud,” said Dr. Bell, who serves as the principal investigator for the advanced mast-mounted Perseverance cameras.

The mission managers had originally planned to head straight to the delta from the landing site. But the rover came down to a place where the direct road was clogged with sand dunes that she could not cross.

They were astonished by the geological formations in the south.

“We got to a surprising location, and we got the best of it,” said Kenneth Farley, a geophysicist at Caltech who serves as the project scientist leading the research.

Since Jezero is a crater that was once a lake, its bottom would have been expected to be boulders formed from sediment that settled to the bottom.

But at first glance, the lack of layers means “it doesn’t look visibly sedimentary,” said Catherine Stack-Morgan of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, deputy project scientist. At the same time, there was no clear indication that it was volcanic in origin either.

Said Nicholas Tosca, Professor of Mineralogy and Petrology at the University of Cambridge in England and a member of the science team.

While scientists and engineers were considering whether to go around north or south, the team that built a robotic helicopter called the Ingenuity experimented with their innovations.

The helicopter was a late addition to the mission, and was meant to serve as a proof of concept for flying in the thin air of Mars.

On April 18 last year, Creativity climbed to a height of 10 feet, hovered for 30 seconds, and then returned to the ground. The flight took 39.1 seconds.

Over the following weeks, Ingenuity made four more flights to increase time, speed and speed.

This helped avoid wasting time driving up to unusual rocks that looked interesting in photos from orbit.

“We sent in the helicopter and saw the pictures, and it looked very similar to what we were,” Ms Trosper said. “So we chose not to drive.”

The helicopter continues to fly. It just completed its nineteenth flight, and is still in great shape. The batteries are still charging. The helicopter has demonstrated its ability to fly in cooler and thinner weather in the winter months. It managed to remove most of the dust that fell on it during a dust storm in January.

“Everything looks green across the board,” said Theodore Tzanitos, who leads the innovation team at JPL.

While exploring the rocks to the south of the landing site, scientists solved some of their mysteries when the rover used its drill bits to grind shallow holes in two of them.

“Oh my God, this looks volcanic,” Dr. Stack Morgan said, remembering her reaction. “Exactly what you would expect for a basaltic lava flow.”

The instruments carried by Perseverance to study the constituents of Mars’ rocks can take precisely defined measurements on fragments of rock as small as a grain of sand. Cameras on the robotic arm can take close-up pictures.

Those observations revealed large grains of olivine, an igneous mineral that can accumulate at the bottom of a large lava flow. Subsequent fractures appeared between grains of olivine filled with carbonate, a mineral formed through interactions with water.

The thinking now is that the floor of Jezero crater is the same olivine-rich igneous rock observed by orbiting spacecraft in the area. It may have formed before the crater was filled with water.

Sediments from the lake may have covered the rocks, with water seeping through the sediments to fill the fractures with carbonate. Then, slowly, over a few billion years, winds blew the sediment away.

It’s hard for geologists on Earth to wrap their minds around the fact that the thin air on Mars can erode a lot of rock.

“You can’t find landscapes close to those on Earth,” said Dr. Farley.

The most disturbing moment during the first year occurred while collecting rock samples. For decades, planetary scientists have dreamed of bringing pieces of Mars to Earth, where they can study them using state-of-the-art equipment in laboratories.

Perseverance is the first step in turning this dream into reality by digging out rock cores and sealing them into tubes. However, the rover does not have a way to obtain rock samples from Mars and back to Earth; who is waiting Another mission known as the return of the Mars sampleIt is a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency.

While developing the tenacity drill bit, engineers tested it using a variety of ground rocks. but then The first rock on Mars I tried to persevere digging It turns out that they are different from all the rocks of the Earth.

The rocks in their core turned to dust while drilling and slipped out of the tube. After several successes, another dig attempt ran into problems. Gravel fell from the tube into an uncomfortable part of the rover – the circle where the drill bits are stored – and it required weeks of troubleshooting to clean up the debris.

“This was exciting, and not necessarily in the best way,” said Dr. Stack Morgan. “The rest of the exploration went really well.”

Perseverance will at some point drop some of its rock samples for a rover on the return Mars mission. This is to prevent the nightmare scenario of perseverance dying and there is no way to get the rocks it holds.

Perseverance’s maximum speed is about the same as Curiosity, the NASA rover touched down another crater in 2012. But improved autonomous driving programs mean it can cover longer distances in a single flight. To reach the delta, persevere needs to retrace to the landing site and then take a route around the dunes to the north.

It can reach the delta by late May or early June. Creativity will try to stay ahead of perseverance.

The helicopter flies faster than the rover can drive, but after each flight, its solar panels must absorb sunlight for several days to recharge the batteries. Perseverance, bolstered by heat from a large mass of plutonium, can drive day after day after day.

However, the helicopter may be able to take a shortcut through the dunes.

“We are planning to reach the delta,” Mr. Tzanitos said. “And we’re discussing what’s happening outside the river delta.”

But he added that each day could be the last day for the brilliance, which is designed to last only one month. “You hope you are lucky enough to continue flying, and we will continue that streak for as long as possible,” he said.

Once Perseverance reaches the delta, the most exciting discovery will be images of what appeared to be microfossils. In this case, “we have to start wondering if some balls of organic matter are arranged in a shape that outlines the cell,” said MIT geobiologist Tanya Bosak.

It is unlikely that the perseverant would see anything unambiguous from the remains of a living being. This is why it is so important to bring the rocks back to Earth for closer examination.

Dr. Bossack does not have a strong opinion of whether there is life on Mars.

“We’re really trying to get into when we have very little knowledge,” she said. “We have no idea when the chemical processes came together to form the first cell. So maybe we’re looking at something that was just learning what life is like.”

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