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Perseverance Has Officially Started Its Search For Signs of Life on Mars

 

The bundle of instruments referred to as SuperCam on board the Perseverance Mars rover has collected its first samples within the explore for past life on the terrestrial planet, mission scientists said Wednesday.

The return to Earth years from now of the rocks and soil it retrieves "will give scientists the chalice of planetary exploration," Jean-Yves le Gall, president of France's National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), which mostly built the mobile observatory, commented via a YouTube broadcast.

These "pieces of Mars", he said, may "finally answer this fascinating and fundamental question: was there ever life elsewhere than Earth?"

After seven months in space, NASA's Perseverance rover gently set down on Martian soil last month and sent back black-and-white images revealing the rocky fields of Jezero Crater, just north of the Mars equator.

"The critical component of this astrobiology mission is SuperCam," said Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Mounted on the rover's mast, the shoebox-sized gizmo is packed with spectrometers, a laser, and a recording device to analyze the chemistry, mineralogy, and molecular composition of Mars' famously red surface.


SuperCam's laser can zap objects smaller than a pencil point from as remote as seven meters (20 feet) and enables the observation of spots beyond the reach of the rover's robotic arm.

"The laser is uniquely capable of remotely clearing away surface dust, giving all of its instruments a transparent view of the targets," said Roger Wiens, an engineer at the town National Laboratory (LANL) and SuperCam man of science.

The mission suffered a heavy mishap before liftoff, revealed LANL's Scott Robinson, who said over 500 engineers and scientists contributed to the project.

"The mast unit optics were destroyed during a freak accident just four months before delivery," he explained. "The team scrambled to tug together spare parts to rebuild the telescope from scratch."

The accident clothed to be a blessing in disguise.

A 'freak accident'

In reassembling the unit, engineers discovered what Robinson described as a "Hubble-like" flaw within the original mirror.

Shortly after the Hubble Space Telescope's launch in 1990, operators realized that the observatory's primary mirror had an aberration – later corrected – that affected the clarity of images.

Scientists believe that around 3.5 billion years ago the crater within which Perseverance landed was home to a river that flowed into a deep lake, depositing sediment in a very fan-shaped delta.

The rover is tasked with collecting quite a XXIV rock and soil samples in sealed tubes, to be sent back to Earth sometime within the 2030s for analysis.

1012 PIA24492 LabeledSuperCam is also taking close-up shots of rock targets on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS/ASU/MSSS)

About the dimensions and weight of an SUV, Perseverance is supplied with a two-meter (seven-foot) robotic arm, 19 cameras, two microphones, in addition as other cutting-edge instruments.

A small helicopter drone tucked under its belly will attempt the primary powered flight on another planet in a very few weeks' time.

One instrument onboard is intended to create oxygen from Mars's primarily greenhouse gas atmosphere, something that will greatly facilitate human habitation.

Perseverance is that the fifth rover to line wheels down on Mars, all of them from NASA. The feat was first accomplished in 1997.

Its core mission lasts just over two years, but the rover could remain operational well beyond that.

© Agence France-Presse

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