Today, after a seven-month-long journey through space, NASA will land its latest rover, named Perseverance, on the surface of Mars. If it succeeds, Perseverance will mark NASA’s sixth consecutive successful touchdown on the Red Planet. If it fails, it will be the agency’s first crash landing in 22 years.
The almost car-sized vehicle’s design is based on its successful predecessor Curiosity, which is currently celebrating its tenth Earth-year on Mars exploring the surroundings of Gale Crater. Both rovers are equipped with an array of scientific instruments to help determine whether Mars could ever have supported life, as well as determining the role of water in reshaping its surface and to study the climate and geology of Mars.
Perseverance has a landing target that measures 4.8 by 4.1 miles (7.7 kilometers by 6.6 kilometers) in diameter inside Jezero Crater. Jezero Crater is located just above the Martian equator in the planet’s easter hemisphere.
This site was chosen as the presence of a large canyon and a fan-shaped delta suggest that the crater once hosted a lake, likely several hundred feet deep. This hypothesis is further supported by the sediments found inside the crater. Thanks to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the chemical composition of the ground can be mapped from the orbit. Based on the analyzed spectral data, Jezero Crater contains high concentrations of calcium, aluminum, and magnesium, indicating the presence of sediments with clays and carbonates. On Earth, such minerals form by chemical alteration of older rocks by water. Water, being one of the necessary ingredients for life, is a promising sign that the rover may discover fossilized microbes in the sediments.
The landing site displays a wide range of rocks and sediments from different Martian eras. The river delta and lake sediments likely formed 3.5 billion years ago, with the crater formation predating the sediments by a few hundred million years. From a study of the depth of the channels entering the crater, it was concluded that the lake inside the crater probably formed during a period in which there was continual surface runoff, a major causes of weathering and erosion, transporting rock fragments inside the crater. Jezero’s fossilized delta is a 230-foot cliff of mudstone, indicating the former depth of the lake. There was likely an inlet and outlet on either side of the crater, keeping the lake level stable. Based on the size of the delta, sedimentation inside the crater-lake happened for 100 to 10,000 years.
The youngest rock formations found inside Jezero Crater are rockfall deposits, from the steep cliffs and crater rims, and dust transported by wind, forming the powdery regolith, or Martian soil.
If Perseverance makes a successful touchdown, the rover will climb the delta and crater rim, collecting rock and regolith samples from the various geological formations on its path.
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