First underground radar images from Mars Perseverance Rover reveal some surprises

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Aerial photo of the remains of a delta where a water source once fed an ancient lake at the Jezero crater. NASA’s Perseverance Rover is currently exploring the area. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The Mars Perseverance Rover landed on our closest planetary neighbour over a year and a half ago, and now fresh data is coming in—bringing some surprises.

The 30-mile-wide Jezero crater on Mars, once the site of a lake, has been explored by the rover, which is roughly the size of a car and is equipped with seven scientific instruments. Jezero is a prime location to look for signs of ancient life and details about the planet's geological and climatic history.

Researchers from UCLA and the University of Oslo report their findings in an article published in Science Advances. They found that the ground-penetrating radar instrument on the rover unexpectedly detected inclined rock strata beneath the crater's bottom. The inclined portions' slopes, thicknesses, and forms imply that either slowly cooling lava generated them or that sediments from the ancient lake were deposited there.

Perseverance is nope to unravel the murky past of this region of the Red Planet as the rover collects additional data. A river formerly Perseverance is now investigating a delta on the western end of the crater. Fed the lake there, leaving a significant deposit of soil and pebbles it picked up along the way.

David Paige, a professor of Earth, planetary, and space sciences at UCLA and one of the principal investigators on the Radar Imager for Mars Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX, stated, "We were somewhat astonished to see rocks heaped up at an inclined angle. "On the crater floor, we anticipated seeing horizontal rocks. They need a more complicated geologic past to be inclined in this way. They could have been created as molten rock rose to the surface, or they might be an earlier delta deposit that was buried in the crater floor."

Rendering of Perseverance, whose RIMFAX technology is exploring what lies beneath the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/FFI

According to Paige, the majority of the data the rover has so far collected hints to an igneous or molten origin; nevertheless, based only on the RIMFAX data, he and the team cannot state how the inclined strata developed at this time definitively. By transmitting bursts of radar waves below the surface, which are reflected by rock formations and other impediments, RIMFAX can take an image of subsurface structures. Radar waves bounce back at different angles and densities, generating a visual representation of what is below depending on the forms, densities, thicknesses, angles, and compositions of subsurface objects.

The radar picture Perseverance acquired during its maiden 3-kilometre journey depicts the electromagnetic characteristics and bedrock stratigraphy—the arrangement of rock layers—of Jezero's floor down to a depth of 15 meters, or 49 feet. The picture shows that there are several stratified rock strata present, including some that are inclined up to 15 degrees. The puzzle is further complicated by certain puzzling, highly reflective rock strata inside those inclined locations that tilt in numerous directions.

Paige said, "RIMFAX is providing us with a perspective of Mars stratigraphy comparable to what you may see on Earth in highway road cuttings, where enormous stacks of rock strata are occasionally visible as you pass past on a hillside. "The precise composition and provenance of the elements that made up the crater bottom were the subject of several theories before Perseverance's landing. The range of possibilities has now been reduced, but the information we have so far indicates that the history of the crater bottom may be far more complex than we had thought."

Rock samples being collected by Perseverance, which will eventually be returned to Earth, will benefit greatly from the context provided by the data gathered by RIMFAX.

"We are given the history of the samples we will examine by RIMFAX. Although the rover's equipment are providing data and we are beginning to understand, there is still more to be learned "Paige said. "After landing on the crater bottom, we are currently ascending on the real delta, the mission's primary objective. We are only at the beginning of our understanding of Mars."

One of three publications detailing part of the initial Perseverance data concurrently published is titled "Ground penetrating radar observations of subsurface features in the bottom of Jezero crater, Mars."

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