NASA Perseverance Mars Rover Excites Scientists With Surprising Volcanic Discoveries On Red Planet

perseverance rover
NASA's Perseverance Mars rover seeks to send back a treasure trove of geological goodies to scientists and geologists back on Earth. Its latest findings include a bedrock likely formed by red-hot magma that interacted with water during the evolution of the red planet.

NASA has been getting a lot of use out of its high-tech toys on the surface of Mars. Whether it is Ingenuity flying about getting aerial shots of the Martian surface, or Perseverance collecting soil and rock samples to analyze and later send back to Earth, the teams at NASA have plenty to be excited about. The latest findings by Perseverance have seemingly answered a question that scientists had before the rover ever landed on the red planet. That being, were some of the rocks on Mars part of an ancient river system, or were they born in lava flows that rose to the surface from an extinct Martian volcano?

During a news briefing held this week at the American Geophysical Union fall science meeting in New Orleans, it was revealed that the very bedrock that the Perseverance rover had been leaving tracks on had likely formed from red-hot magma. This new information has direct implications for both understanding and accurately dating critical events in the history of Jezero Crater, and also the rest of the planet.

Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena and Perseverance Project Scientist stated, "I was beginning to despair we would never find the answer. But then our PIXL instrument got a good look at the abraded patch of a rock from the area nicknamed 'South Seitah', and it all become clear. The crystals within the rock provided the smoking gun."

The instrument that finally gave scientists the answer they had been searching for was the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL. Once the drill at the end of Perseverance's robotic arm cuts into or grinds a rock's surface, instruments such as PIXL can then take over and perform analysis of the exposed rock.

PIXL uses X-ray fluorescence to map the elemental composition of rocks. It was on November 12th, that during analysis on a South Seitah rock that the team had chosen to take a core sample from that PIXL found data showing the rock nicknamed "Brac" to consist of an unusual abundance of large olivine crystals immersed in pyroxene crystals.

Farley added, "A good geology student will tell you that such a texture indicates the rock formed when crystals grew and settled in a slowly cooling magma—for example a thick lava flow, lava lake, or magma chamber. The rock was then altered by water several times, making it a treasure trove that will allow future scientists to date events in Jezero, better understanding the period in which water was more common on its surface, and reveal the early history of the planet."

So far Perseverance has 43 sample tubes, of which six of them have been sealed to date. Of those six, four contain rock cores, one has a sample of the Martian atmosphere, and one contains "witness" material to observe any possible contamination the Mars rover could have brought with it from Earth. The Mars Sample Return mission aims to send back select tubes to Earth so that scientists can study them with equipment that was too large to send to the red planet and far more powerful than what was sent. The findings should be enough to keep scientists busy for generations trying to unlock as many secrets of the red planet as possible.

Another finding that has scientists excited comes from the discovery of organic compounds by the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals instrument (SHERLOC). The molecules that were detected were not only found on the abraded rocks SHERLOC analyzed, but also in the dust on non-abraded rock.

Luther Beegle, SHERLOC principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California said, "Curiosity also discovered organics at its landing site with Gale Crater. What SHERLOC adds to the story is its capability to map the spatial distribution of organics inside rocks and relate those organics to minerals found there. This helps us understand the environment in which the organics formed. More analysis needs to be done to determine the method of production for the identified organics."

Perseverance also has the ability to create a "radargram" of subsurface features up to about 33 feet (10 meters deep) utilizing its Radar Imager for Mars' Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX instrument. Data was collected using RIMFAX as the rover drove across a ridgeline from the "Crater Floor Fractured Rough". Using that data the team was able to determine that multiple rock formations with a visible downward tilt continue at the same angle well below the surface. These results confirm what scientists believed that the creation of Seitah preceded Crater Floor Fractured Rough.

With all the information that Perseverance, Ingenuity and Curiosity are collecting, scientists should be busy for quite a while. Each new discovery gives more insight about the red planet and its history.