NASA’s Pre-Mars Probe has successfully collected its first few rock samples, and scientists are already beginning to gain new insights into the area. After collecting the first sample, called “Montdenier,” on September 6, the team collected a second sample, “Montagnac,” from the same rock on September 8. Analysis of the rocks sampled from Montdenier and Montagnac and an attempt at previous rover sampling could help the team build a timeline of the area’s past, which was marked by volcanic activity and standing water periods.
“Our first rocks seem to reveal a sustainable, potentially habitable environment,” said Ken Farley of Caltech, project scientist for the mission, which is led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. “It is very important that the water is there for a long time.” The rocks that provided the first core samples for the expedition are basaltic in composition and may have been the product of lava flows. The presence of crystalline minerals in igneous rocks is particularly useful for radioactive dating. The origin of igneous rocks can help scientists determine the exact date of their formation. Each monster can be part of a larger time puzzle; Arrange them in the correct order, and scientists have a timeline of the most important events in the crater’s history.
Some of these events include the formation of the Jezero Crater, the creation and disappearance of Lake Jezero, and changes in the planet’s climate in the distant past. In addition, salts are found in these rocks. These salts may have formed when groundwater flowed through them and the original minerals in the rock changed, or more likely when liquid water evaporated and left the salts behind. The brine minerals in the first two rocky cores may also have trapped tiny bubbles of ancient Martian water. If present, they could serve as microscopic time capsules, providing clues about the past climate and habitability of Mars. The salt minerals on Earth are also known for their ability to preserve signs of ancient life.
The persistence science team already knew that the crater was filled with a lake; How long was more uncertain. Scientists could not rule out the possibility that Lake Jezero was a “flash in the pan”: floodwaters, for example, quickly filled the impact crater and dried up over a 50-year period. But the degree of change that scientists see in the rock from which the core samples are taken — as well as in the rock the team focused on in their first sample collection — suggests that groundwater may have been around for a long time.
This groundwater may have been related to the lake that once existed in Jezero, or it may have moved through the rocks long after the lake had dried up. While scientists are still unable to determine whether the water that transformed these rocks existed tens of thousands or millions of years ago, they are more confident that it has been around long enough to make the area more suitable for microscopic life in the past. “These samples are of great value for future laboratory analysis on Earth,” said Mitch Schulte of NASA Headquarters, mission program scientist. “One day we may be able to determine the sequence and timing of the environmental conditions that account for the minerals in this rock. This will help answer the big scientific question about the history and stability of liquid water on Mars.”
Next stop, “South Sete”.
Perseverance is currently scanning the floor of the crater for samples that can be brought back to Earth to answer deep questions about the history of Mars. The promising monsters are enclosed in titanium tubes that the rover carries in its hull, where they will be stored until Perseverance drops them to be recovered in a future mission. Perseverance will likely create multiple “repositories” later in the mission, where you’ll drop samples for a future mission to bring to Earth. Having one or more warehouses increases the chance of especially valuable monsters getting to Earth.
The next sampling point for perseverance is just 200 yards away in “South Sittah,” a ridge covered with dunes, boulders and rock shards that Farley likens to “broken dinner plates.” The rover’s recent core sample likely represents one of the smallest rock layers at the bottom of the Jezero Crater. On the other hand, South Séítah is likely to be much older, and would give the science team a better timeline for understanding the events that shaped the crater floor, including the lake. In early October, all Mars missions will give up command of their spacecraft for several weeks, a precaution during a period called the Mars-solar conjunction. It is likely that the perseverance did not begin to dig south of Sitah until sometime after that period.
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