Perseverance and UNM

Here is my pre-edited piece on Perseverance reconnecting UNM trio to Mars in case it doesn’t get published.

The control room is silent inside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA’s Perseverance rover team sits watching their computer screens intently. The team then hears in its headset, “Touchdown.” The room erupts into cheers. It is Thursday Feb. 18th, and the Perseverance rover has just touched down successfully in Jezero Crater on our cosmic neighbor Mars, and begin its mission of searching for signs of ancient life and to collect rocks to bring back to Earth for study.

Nearly 800 miles from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Albuquerque, there is also celebration and a big sigh of relief from Dr. Horton Newsom, Dr. Louis Scuderi and PhD student Zachary Gallegos. The sighs of relief are a sign of how much time and effort that all scientists, not just these three, put into getting Perseverance to Mars. 

For Gallegos, the landing was extremely special. “The site selection for Perseverance’s landing began in 2013,” Gallegos said. “And I have been actively involved in that process since then. We’ve had a meeting about every two years to propose and pair down the sites. When we got down to four sites, I was incharge of looking at Jezero Crater and the Syrtis area around Jezero.”

NASA chose the Jezero Crater as the landing site because of a couple of key reasons. First, there are parts of the 750-mile wide crater that are smooth and conducive for a good landing. Second is what they like to call the megabreccia. 

“What megabreccia is is a process where there has been a high impact on the crust that throws up big blocks of the crust of the planet,” Gallegos said. “So, my job on the team was to figure out where those blocks were and what we could gain by taking samples of them. And the reason its important to look there is that it can tell us about the past history of the crust and any alterations that may have happened because of water.” 

With the appearance of Jezero Crater, the belief is strong that it once held the water and rock deposits that NASA was looking for. “It has the shape that a river delta once existed in Jezero Crater,” Gallegos said. “And it appears as though the river emptied out into a big lake in the crater. And so if you wanted to look for signs of past life on Mars, you would need to look where there was signs of water, which Jezero is a good place for that.”

“One of the main reasons why Jezero was selected was the delta,” says Dr. Scuderi, professor at UNM and an affiliate with the Mars Science Laboratory Team at Los Alamos National Labs. “Deltas on Earth are super highly productive as far as biological life. So, we know that this is a place that we need to look for biological life on Mars.” 

“What we are looking for is rocks that have broken off the edge of the layers in the delta,” Scuderi said. “Reason being is that the surface of Mars gets a lot of radiation coming in, since it has hardly any atmosphere, and so the rocks that have been laying around the surface for a while have been exposed to that radiation and the bilogical material that woud have been there gets reduced and you really can’t see anything at all.” 

In the future, Perseverance will go over the the edges of the delta inside Jezero Crater to collect samples from those rocks that have broken off the layered edge, something that Scuderi and the team he’s a part of have already mapped.

“We’ve mapped literally hundreds of thousands of boulders,” says Scuderi. “Those boulders are in places where Perseverance can literally go to and sample. We want to do sampling from geological materials and with hopes in the future of bringing those back to Earth with another mission.”

The pictures already sent back from Perseverance have Scuderi taking notice. 

“You take a look at the pictures and it looks just like New Mexico,” Scuderi says. “So, that is interesting as well, but looking at the pictures, we can tell that there indeed was a lake and a delta that was in Jezero Crater. So, for us, that is big in what we are trying to accomplish.”

The pictures from Perseverance of the surface of Jezero Crater also have Dr. Horton Newsom in awe. 

“I look at the pictures of the ridge from the crater and then look out my window at the Sandia Mountains and it’s like looking at a replica,” Newsom said. “That’s really neat to look at.”

Dr. Newsom works with a team that works on Perseverance’s SuperCam. The SuperCam was invented at Los Alamos National Labs in collaboration with the French Space Agency, the Univeristy of Toulouse in France, along with partners from Hawaii and Spain. 

“What the SuperCam does is that it examines rocks and soil,” Newsom said. “It does that with a camera, a laser to blast dust off surfaces to get a better look at surfaces.”

These things Newsom can control right here from New Mexico. “We have a lot of perverbial safety nets that we go through in order to do something with Perseverance so as to not get it into someplace that we cannot get out of,” Newsom said. “But I can initiate the movement from here.” 

With Curiostiy already having been on Mars since 2012, the hope is that Perseverance will go beyond a decade and collect samples that could be brought back to UNM.

“The hope is to bring some samples from Mars to here at UNM,” Newsom said. “And then the students then will be able to study those.”

The technology involved amazes Scuderi. “The technology has come a long way and I’m just in awe of how the scientists work on it has come along,” Scuderi said. “I’m excited for the next decade to say the least.”

With the teams involving Newsom, Scuderi and Gallegos, UNM is prime to be involved in the Perseverance mission for years to come.

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