NASA’s Perseverance rover is set to lift off this week to begin its journey toward the red planet. The robot carries a plethora of instruments, a helicopter, and sample containers that might one day conduct pieces of Mars back to Earth. However, Perseverance will also repatriate a tiny fragment of Mars back to its homeworld. The rover’s calibration target will include a piece of a meteorite that left Mars behind thousands of years ago.
Perseverance, previously known only as Mars 2020, is the successor of Curiosity. NASA has been overwhelmingly pleased with Curiosity’s performance since its 2012 landing on Mars. Perseverance makes a few structural changes, like more durable wheels that won’t get roughed up by the pointy Martian rocks. The latest Mars explorer also has a collection of new instruments including SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals), which takes the place of MAHLI (Mars Hand Lens Imager) on Curiosity.
Just like MAHLI, SHERLOC lives at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. To take reliable readings, NASA needs to recalibrate these sensitive instruments after landing. That’s why both Curiosity and Perseverance have calibration targets mounted on the chassis, and that’s where you’ll find a little piece of Mars that’s going home.
The fragment comes from a meteorite called SaU 008, which was discovered in Oman in 1999. It has been in the collection of the Natural History Museum in London since 2000. Gas pockets inside the rock confirm it formed on Mars, and now it’s headed back there. Scientists confirmed the rock came from Mars roughly 600,000-700,000 years ago when an asteroid or comet impacted the planet. The cataclysm launched bits of Mars into space, and eventually, some of it rained down on Earth.
The Perseverance team says that a piece of Mars is an ideal way to calibrate the SHERLOC tool after landing. The Perseverance calibration target also contains several materials being considered for future Mars spacesuits. In addition to calibrating the rover’s instruments, NASA will be able to use the target to monitor how these materials age while exposed to the Martian atmosphere.
Perseverance is already packaged up inside the Atlas V rocket that will send it into space later this week. Assuming the launch goes well, the next time we hear about Perseverance, it will be preparing for its landing in February 2021.
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