Mars rocks photographed today give a glimpse into a fascinating world

The red planet is finally coming into clear view.
Grant Currin
A mosaic image from the Perseverance rover, taken 24 July 2022. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Paul Byrne

It wasn't that long ago that humans had no idea what it was like on the surface of Mars. Skywatchers have known for millennia — at least — that the tiny orange dot moves across the night sky in huge loops that look like illegible cursive writing.

But now, thanks to instruments aboard NASA's Perseverance rover, we finally have images of the Martian landscape to see how an intrepid hiker might see it. And it's beautiful.

Planetary geologist Paul Byrne, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, recently spotted some particularly spectacular images in the gallery of raw images from the rover that NASA makes available to the public. This photo is one of nearly 300,000 the agency has shared from the mission.

Perseverance's photos of the Martian landscape are unbelievable

Perseverance is a robot roughly the size of a car that's been wandering around the surface of Mars since it landed on the planet last February. The rover's main job is to search for signs of ancient microbial life, which it does with the help of a drill it uses to collect rock and soil samples. NASA hopes to collect those samples in another mission sometime in the future.

The rover also collects plenty of digital data that it transmits back to scientists on Earth. That information comes from a suite of instruments, including spectrometers, a radar that can penetrate the planet's rocky surface, a weather station, and a camera called Mastcam-Z. This instrument, like the cameras on the Mars Exploration Rover that began transmitting images of the landscape nearly 20 years ago, contains two cameras that mounted side by side. Their color quality is "[s]imilar to that of consumer digital cameras," according to the agency  

Mars rocks photographed today give a glimpse into a fascinating world
An image of Perseverence showing Mastcam. Source.

There's a lot of sedimentary rock in the Jezero Crater

Perseverance has spent its time on the planet — now more than 500 Martian days, which are called "sols" — exploring a corner of the famous Jezero Crater. Scientists think the low-lying plain was once a river delta submerged in fresh water. 

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"More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake. Scientists see evidence that water carried clay minerals from the surrounding area into the crater lake," the agency says. It's possible that microbes once lived in the region. If that's true, "signs of their remains might be found in lakebed or shoreline sediments," NASA says.

The spectacular image that Byrne shared shows layers of sedimentary rock visible from Perserverence's vantage point in the Jezero crater. The image isn't just a stunning insight into the Martian landscape. It also contains valuable information for geologists who can draw surprisingly specific conclusions by measuring the depth of the photos' layers and analyzing the appearance of the rock itself. 

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