NASA’s Perseverance rover has been on Mars for several months, and so far, it’s been busy but hasn’t gotten down to any of its real scientific work. The rover has been serving as a communications base station for the spectacularly successful Ingenuity Mars Helicopter and documenting test flights. NASA has let Perseverance conduct some basic scientific operations in its immediate area.
Recently Perseverance used its high-resolution camera and laser to study rocks in its immediate vicinity. The rocks were always intended to be studied by the rover as its landing location, called Jezero Crater, is thought to have been a lake in the distant past. If the theories that the location was a lake in the distant past are correct, it could have been home to life of some sort.
Studying the rocks lying around the crater could give scientists an idea of if life was on the planet’s surface in the distant past and how the rocks originated. One of the major questions that scientists conducting missions with the rover want to answer is whether the rocks are sedimentary or igneous. Sedimentary rocks, like sandstone, sometimes form in the presence of water and can have internal fragments like sand, silt, and clay inside that preserve biosignatures. Igneous rocks are formed by volcanic activity.
Sedimentary rocks are ideal for searching for signs of ancient life. Scientists studying the Earth know that sandstone, in particular, holds all sorts of clues about long-extinct species. However, if the rocks are igneous, they are unlikely to hold any evidence of ancient life.
Perseverance will investigate many different types of rock during its mission on Mars. The rover will move around the crater and study all different types of rock, hoping to learn as much as possible about the Red Planet.