Perseverance uses ancient Mars river bed to collect sample

The Mars Perseverance rover collected its 20th sample on the red planet thanks to an ancient river bed that let it sample rocks from faraway regions.
John Loeffler
NASA's Perseverance Mars within an area of Jezero Crater.
NASA's Perseverance Mars within an area of Jezero Crater.


NASA’s Perseverance rover marked a major milestone recently when it sealed away its 20th rock sample from Martian soil.

The latest sample, drilled out of an outcropping in an ancient river bed, is from a sedimentary rock layer known as a conglomerate. These kinds of rocks form when pebbles and boulders of different types and sizes are cemented together in a softer mortar, like ancient river mud that has dried up.

“Pebbles and boulders found in a river are messengers from afar,” Ken Farley, Perseverance project scientist from Caltech in Pasadena, said in a NASA statement. “And while the water that created the Martian riverbed that Perseverance is currently exploring evaporated billions of years ago, the story carried by those waters remains fresh, stored in conglomerate rock.”

Using an ancient river for Mars ‘prospecting’

Perseverance uses ancient Mars river bed to collect sample
NASA’s Perseverance captured this image June 13 of a sample it cored from a conglomerate rock called “Emerald Lake.” This “Otis Peak” core shows distinctly colored areas that are individual minerals transported by a river that once flowed into Jezero Crater.

The most recent sample is an example of the kind of diligent work that Perseverance has been carrying out, but being in a dried-up river bed makes the latest sample especially noteworthy for what it can tell us about more distant parts of the planet in the past.

As the ancient river coursed its way through the Martian soil, it picked up rocks and other debris as it went. These rocks might have traveled 100 miles or more, originating from a region that Perseverance would likely never be able to reach on its own, much less collect samples from it.

“Whether the boulders appear intriguing enough for closer examination and possible sampling remains to be seen – literally,” said Farley. “We’re taking a page from the past. Prospectors looking for gold or diamonds in the old days often looked in rivers to determine whether there was any deposit of interest upstream. No need to hike up there to see – let the river do the work!”

Getting the samples to a lab

The samples, rock and otherwise, that Perseverance has collected in Jezero Crater need more equipment to properly examine than the rover has onboard, so to analyze the samples, they will need to be transported to a lab where they can be more closely looked at.

This is the goal of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign, a joint NASA-ESA effort to find a way to get Mars samples off-world and back to Earth for further study. In its conceptual phase right now, MSR hopes to eventually find a way to collect the sealed titanium tubes that Perseverance and other Mars rovers are depositing at points along its journey. If they can ever be brought back to Earth and studied, scientists hope that they might reveal signs of ancient microbial life on Mars.

Whether we will be able to do so or not, Perseverance will continue to gather them anyway, already having formed quite a collection as is.

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