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Perseverance’s Eyes See a Different Mars

For figuring out precise parts—and, extra importantly, determining if they may have as soon as harbored life—you want much more colours. Some of these colours are much more invisible. That’s the place x-ray spectroscopy is available in.

Specifically, the crew operating one of many sensors on Perseverance’s arm—the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL—is seeking to mix the fundamental recipe for minerals with fine-grained textures. That’s how you discover stromatolites, sediment layers with teeny tiny domes and cones that may solely come from mats of residing microbes. Stromatolites on Earth present a number of the proof of the earliest residing issues right here; Perseverance’s scientists hope they’ll do the identical on Mars.

The PIXL crew’s chief, an astrobiologist and discipline geologist on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory named Abigail Allwood, has carried out this earlier than. She used that know-how along side high-resolution photos of sediments to search out indicators of the earliest recognized life on Earth in Australia—and to find out that related sediments in Greenland weren’t proof of historical life there. It’s not simple to do in Greenland; it’ll be even more durable on Mars.

X-rays are a part of the identical electromagnetic spectrum as the sunshine that people see, however at a a lot decrease wavelength—much more extremely than ultraviolet. It’s ionizing radiation, solely a colour if you happen to’re Kryptonian. X-rays trigger completely different sorts of atoms to fluoresce, to offer off mild, in attribute methods. “We create the x-rays to bathe the rocks in, and then detect that signal to study the elemental chemistry,” Allwood says. And PIXL and the arm even have a bright-white flashlight on the tip. “The illumination on the front started out as just a way of making the rocks easier to see, to tie the chemistry to visible textures, which hasn’t been done before on Mars,” Allwood says. The colour was a little vexing at first; warmth and chilly affected the bulbs. “We initially tried white LEDs, but with temperature changes it wasn’t producing the same shade of white,” she says. “So the guys in Denmark who supplied us with the camera, they provided us with colored LEDs.” Those had been crimson, inexperienced, and blue—and ultraviolet. That mixture of colours added collectively to make a higher and extra constant white mild.

That mixture would possibly be capable to discover Martian stromatolites. After finding probably targets—maybe because of Mastcam-Z pans throughout the crater—the rover will sidle up and lengthen its arm, and PIXL will begin pinging. The tiniest options, grains and veins, can say whether or not the rock is igneous or sedimentary, melted collectively like stew or layered like a sandwich. Colors of layers on high of different options will give a clue in regards to the age of every. Ideally, the map of seen colours and textures will line up with the invisible, numbers-only map that the x-ray outcomes generate. When the best buildings line up with the best minerals, Allman can inform whether or not she’s bought Australia-type life indicators or a Greenland-type bust. “What we’ve found that’s really interesting with PIXL is that it shows you stuff you don’t see, through the chemistry,” Allwood says. “That would be the key.”

Allwood is hoping PIXL’s tiny scans will yield big outcomes—an inferred map of 6,000 particular person factors on the instrument’s postage stamp-sized discipline of view, with a number of spectral outcomes for every. She calls this a “hyperspectral datacube.”

Of course, Perseverance has different cameras and devices, different scanners on the lookout for different hints of that means in bits of rock and regolith. Adjacent to PIXL is a system that appears at rocks a complete different means, taking pictures a laser at them to vibrate their molecules—that’s Raman spectroscopy. The information Perseverance collects can be hyperspectral, but additionally multifaceted—nearly philosophically so. That’s what occurs if you ship a robotic to a different planet. A human mission or rocks despatched house by way of pattern return would produce the very best, floor fact information, as one exoplanet researcher advised me. Somewhat behind which might be x-ray and Raman spectroscopy, then rover cameras, then orbiter cameras. And in fact all these issues are working collectively on Mars.

“Finding life on Mars will not be, ‘Such and such an instrument sees something.’ It’ll be, ‘All the instruments saw this, that, and the other thing, and the interpretation makes life reasonable,” Allwood says. “There’s no smoking gun. It’s a complicated tapestry.” And like a good tapestry, the complete picture solely emerges from a warp and weft of colour, fastidiously threaded collectively.


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