ASU scientist and Mastcam-Z leader Jim Bell discusses the rover’s surprising latest findings
You are on vacation, driving on the red planet. What jumps out at you? What deserves a photo?
NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover has taken more than 200,000 images since landing on Mars in July 2021. The rover is equipped with 23 cameras, and two of the Mastcam-Z cameras are the largest and most capable.
Jim Bell, a professor at Arizona State University, is NASA’s principal investigator for Mastcam-Z. Its two cameras are inside the box that looks like a rectangular crow’s nest atop the rover’s pivoting mast.
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Perseverance has now traveled over 8 miles to Mars. Like any good adventure, it has some surprises in store.
Its Jezero Crater landing site was chosen because it sits on an ancient lakebed – the kind of place one would expect to find lakebed sediment.
“And what we found was a lot of textures that match what we see when we look at volcanic terrains on Earth, lava flows, or places where lava has come out of the ground or erupted.” , explains Bell. “We see, for example, textures that look like pahoehoe lava flows on the island of Hawaii or in Iceland. We see places where it looks like the flows have gathered around obstacles and lurched almost in a fluid and dynamic way.
Bell is a planetary scientist who teaches at the School of Earth and Space Exploration.
“And it was cool for geologists to see types of volcanic features,” Bell says. “Most of us were expecting to see sediment from the lake bed, and it’s probably there, maybe buried under these volcanic rocks. Maybe the volcanic rocks came later. We know there are lake sediments there because there is a giant delta right next to us which we also took spectacular images of. But still, you know, kinda surprising not to get exactly what we’re expecting to see.
Video by Stephen Filmer
Photos choose what’s worth bringing back
One of Perseverance’s goals is to search for signs of past life on Mars. To do this, scientists need to look closely.
Mastcam-Z has two cameras, which can zoom in and out and be used to create three-dimensional stereo images. It’s a first for cameras on Mars, and it’s a significant help in understanding rocks, dust, and other geological and weather features on the surface.
One of the most important roles of the Mastcam-Z team is to create images that help NASA make choices about which core samples are worth bringing back to Earth.
“We know that some of the samples we’ll be bringing back are probably volcanic rocks, which means we can take them to labs like the labs here at SESE and do absolute dating and others, all kinds of detailed geochemistry on them. “, says Bell. “So unexpected, but exciting results.”
These samples are part of Mars Sample Return (MSR), which will involve a separate lander and launcher to bring them to Earth. The director of the School of Earth and Space, Meenakshi Wadhwa, is the scientist of the MSR program. NASA and the European Space Agency are planning technology that should collect and transport the samples in the early 2030s.
To prepare for the return of samples, Mastcam-Z’s next role will be to help locate and create an emergency sample site.
“Over the next month, we’ll take about half of the samples we’ve collected so far and place them in a fairly boring flat area right in front of the delta,” Bell says.
This site is NASA’s “just in case” backup plan, in case the rover doesn’t survive as long as expected.
“And they’ll be there for the sample return lander and the recovery helicopters that will land to pick up and put in the rocket, which will go to Mars orbit, catch up with the orbiter, and fly back to Earth,” Bell says.
After that it’s on the road again for Mastcam-Z. The 2023 travel schedule for Perseverance involves driving to the summit of the delta above Jezero Crater. Expect the spectacular – and maybe a few new surprises.
Top image: NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover took this selfie above a rock nicknamed “Rochette” on Sept. 10, 2021. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
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