The Mars Perseverance rover is nearing its main mission target

An ancient river delta that could harbor signs of ancient life.
Chris Young
A selfie of the Perseverance rover (left) and the Martian delta (right).1, 2

NASA's Perseverance rover will begin its climb up the ancient delta feature known as "Hawksbill Gap" on Mars today, May 17, according to a post from NASA.

This is the Perseverance team's "main astrobiology target" and a key milestone for a mission that set out to find signs of ancient life on the red planet.  

NASA's rover approaches its 'main astrobiology target'

The Mars Perseverance rover will drive uphill with the aid of its autonomous navigation system, though the route has been carefully planned by the Perseverance team on Earth, more than 30 million miles away.

The rover will collect rock samples, which it will later place at the base of the delta for future retrieval missions to collect and bring back to Earth in the 2030s. 

In an interview with the BBC, Perseverance deputy project scientist Dr. Katie Stack Morgan said, "the delta in Jezero Crater is the main astrobiology target of Perseverance. These are the rocks that we think likely have the highest potential for containing signs of ancient life and can also tell us about the climate of Mars and how this has evolved over time."

The Perseverance rover landed on Mars' Jezero Crater on February 18 last year. Since that time, it has helped to provide substantial evidence that the Jezero Crater was once a lake thanks to images of surrounding deltas. It has also helped to carry out a number of historic firsts, including the first controlled flight on Mars, thanks to the Ingenuity helicopter that hitched a ride aboard the rover. 

Exploring a Martian river delta

Deltas are natural collection points where the flow of a river deposits materials, including nutrients, at a high rate. That's why the Perseverance team has decided to focus on a delta they have called "Hawksbill Gap." Once there, it will look for suitable rocks to sample, and it will also use its state-of-the-art instruments to analyze the composition of its surroundings, potentially helping to answer whether the region was once habitable. However, the Perseverance team says we most likely won't know whether life once existed until the rover's samples are brought back to Earth.

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The Mars Perseverance rover is nearing its main mission target
NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) is designed to carry rock samples back to Earth in the 2030s. Source: NASA

One surprising helper on the Perseverance rover mission is the Ingenuity helicopter, which was originally only supposed to fly a total of five times in order to prove that controlled flight was possible on Mars. The helicopter has acted as an aerial scout for Perseverance, having flown almost 30 times. It is now being used to help plan the rover's exact route via images that are beamed back to Earth. 

Once the Perseverance rover finishes collecting samples on the Hawksbill Gap delta, it will return to the Jezero Crater floor to perform another historic first. Once there, it will leave its first stash of samples for collection on the dried Martian lake bed. 

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