NASA's Mars rover Perseverance is starting to take the measure of its new Red Planet home.
For the past five weeks, Perseverance has been focused primarily on supporting and documenting the pioneering flights of its little cousin, NASA's 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) Mars helicopter Ingenuity. But the car-sized rover has been doing science work of its own in the background as well.
For example, Perseverance has extensively photographed its surroundings — the boulder-studded floor of Mars' 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater, where the rover and chopper touched down on Feb. 18 — with its high-resolution Mastcam-Z imaging system.
In photos: NASA's Perseverance rover mission to the Red Planet
Perseverance has also studied nearby rocks in greater detail using two other instruments: its rock-zapping SuperCam laser and the WATSON ("Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and Engineering") camera at the end of its robotic arm.
The mission team is keen to know whether the stones are volcanic or sedimentary in origin. Volcanic rocks can serve as geological clocks, allowing researchers to better understand the history and evolution of Jezero, which hosted a lake and a river delta billions of years ago. And sedimentary rocks, which form through the deposition of dirt and sand over time, have greater potential to preserve signatures of Mars life, if it ever existed at Jezero.
Hunting for biosignatures is one of Perseverance's two core mission tasks, along with collecting and caching several dozen samples of potential astrobiological significance. That pristine Mars material will be hauled to Earth by a joint NASA-European Space Agency campaign, perhaps as early as 2031.
Determining the Jezero rocks' origin may require abrading their surfaces and obtaining compositional information from their interiors using two other instruments on the robotic arm, PIXL ("Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry") and SHERLOC ("Scanning for Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals").
"When you look inside a rock, that's where you see the story," Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in a statement.
Perseverance is set to ramp up its science work considerably, for its days as a helicopter observer are mostly over. Ingenuity wrapped up its main technology-demonstrating mission last week and is now embarking on an extended mission designed to showcase the scouting potential of Red Planet rotorcraft.
So Ingenuity will continue to fly for a while, on sorties that could help the Perseverance team pick the most efficient routes and identify rock formations that merit up-close inspection.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.