The first twelve months of Perseverance on Mars have been exciting, sometimes exhausting, for the mission team. And it’s only just started. A look back at the surprises and other discoveries made during this first year of operation on the red planet.
A first powered flight on another planet
A year ago, the Perseverance rover sliced through the Martian atmosphere at more than 20,000 km/h before landing smoothly in just seven minutes (the famous “seven minutes of terror“). Twelve months later, the vehicle is still evolving in the same crater, named Jezero. Based on its topography, the depression once housed a huge lake with rivers flowing through it from west to east.
One of the first things Perseverance did was deploy Ingenuity, a small robotic helicopter. His one and only goal was to successfully fly. On April 18, the rotorcraft rose to about three meters high, hovered for thirty seconds before descending to land on the ground. The flight only lasted 39.1 seconds, but it will definitely mark history.
Over the following weeks, Ingenuity conducted four more flights, each more complex than the last. From then on, the engineers had to close his mission. In the end, the helicopter “spent”, becoming a real teammate of Perseverance. By being the “eyes” of the rover from the Martian sky, Ingenuity thus made it possible to avoid wasting time driving towards unexceptional rocks which nevertheless seemed potentially interesting in the images taken from orbit. Even today, Ingenuity continues to fly. It has just completed its 19th flight and remains in good condition.
Last April, Perseverance also made history by successfully transforming part of the red planet’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen using a small device, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (or MOXY). Like Ingenuity, it is a demonstration of technology that could eventually allow future Mars explorers to breathe, but also to fill the oxygen tanks they will need to return to Earth.
The rover then embarked on the actual exploration of its crater. Very quickly, observations revealed large grains of olivine, an igneous mineral that can accumulate at the bottom of a large lava flow. In other words, the bottom of the Jezero crater would therefore have formed from hot magma. Later, fractures appeared between the olivine grains filled with carbonates, a mineral that forms by interaction with water.
Perseverance also ran into some issues while looking to collect Rock Cores. As a reminder, these samples will be brought back to Earth for analysis as part of a future mission called Mars Sample Return.
Last August, mission teams attempted to collect a first sample from the surface of Mars. For this major first, the rover focused on the Crater Floor Fractured Rough, which features ancient and exposed bedrock. Unfortunately, this first attempt did not go as planned. The data indeed indicated that no Martian rock or dust had entered the sample tube. In reality, the rock had crumbled.
More recently, Perseverance also found himself with several rocks stuck “in his throat” on his sixth attempt. The rover’s sensors had indeed registered an unexpected resistance when the vehicle was to place its sample under seal, suggesting a possible blockage. A few days later, the mission teams finally managed to evict them.
After months of painstaking examination of the crater floor, the team is now preparing to head to the main area of this mission: a dry river delta along the western rim of Jezero. Scientists expect to find sedimentary rocks there that may contain signs of Martian life.
However, it remains unlikely that the rover will be able to unequivocally prove the presence of ancient fossilized organisms. This is why it is crucial that these rocks be brought back to Earth for further examination.