Perseverance collects a River of Science

by | July 31, 2023, 12:00 PM | Solar Systems

Jezero Crater as Seen by ESA’s Mars Express Orbiter: This image shows the remains of an ancient delta in Mars’ Jezero Crater, which NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover will explore for signs of fossilized microbial life. Credit: NASA

The remnants of ancient dunes aren’t the only place where we see records of Mars’ past climates. Mars Perseverance rover is currently traveling along a dried river delta and sampling rocks as it goes. River’s are both awesome and terrible. On one hand, there is no way to know if any one rock formed entirely locally. On the other hand, riverbeds are full of rocks that come from upstream and rocks that are formed from a conglomeration of rocks that came from all sorts of different places. This means Percy is able to sample rocks and conglomerations of rocks from a variety of places on Mars from one central location. 

As it roves, Perseverance is sampling rocks that we hope to one day bring back to Earth. On June 23, it collected its 20th rock sample. Currently, a Mars Sample Return mission, constructed in collaboration between NASA and ESA is in the design phase, but in early July the US Senate made it clear that if the mission can’t be done for its estimated $5.3 billion, maybe NASA shouldn’t do it. This wasn’t good news. According to reporting by Eric Berger on Arstechnica, the mission is now looking to come in closer to $8-9 billion, which is… not $5.3 billion. Not even close. 

It isn’t understood if NASA will cancel the mission or – as we have done with so many missions before – fight to find ways to keep it going. This could potentially mean cannibalizing funding to many projects for the sake of retrieving one set of rocks. It is very hard to understand how to balance the benefits of processing rock samples in the massive labs of Earth, against all the other science that can be accomplished for that price tag.

While the US Senate doesn’t want to support a mission over $5.3 billion, NASA isn’t doing this alone. As planned, Mars Sample Return is a joint mission between NASA and ESA, and other nations, including China, Russia, and Japan have all considered missions. There is the potential for ESA to cover more of the price tag or for more agencies like Japan’s JAXA to partner on the missions.

I am very glad that I am not the person making these decisions. No matter what happens, there are going to be people who are disappointed. Luckily, the rocks Percy is collecting can’t go bad. If the mission is canceled now, there is still hope the silence can be done in the future. It is even possible that someday humans will pick up the samples Percy is collecting and bring them to a lab we take to Mars. The future has many options… and whatever path things take, science will be possible.