Using a two-meter robotic arm, and high-end laser-equipped SuperCam camera, Perseverance Mars rover is preparing to collect its first rock sample from the site of an ancient lake bed, implementing its top mission on the Red Planet.
"When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the Moon," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, according to AFP.
"I have every expectation that Perseverance's first sample from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars," he added.
Perseverance landed on the Red Planet on February 18, in the Jezero Crater. The team believes the latter was home to an ancient lake 3.5 billion years ago. The rover has been sent to look for evidence on possible past life on March.
Since then, the rover moved about a kilometer to the south of its landing site.
"Now we're looking at environments that are much further in the past—billions of years in the past," project scientist Ken Farley told reporters.
The team believes the crater was once home to an ancient lake that filled and drew down multiple times, potentially creating the conditions necessary for life.
Analyzing samples will reveal clues about the rocks' chemical and mineral composition—revealing things like whether they were formed by volcanoes or are sedimentary in origin.
The rover will also scour for possible signs of ancient microbes.
Farley said that a small cliff that harbored fine-layered rocks might have been formed from lake muds, though it will be a few more months before Perseverance reaches that outcrop.
Each rock Perseverance analyzes will have an untouched geologic "twin" stored in the rover.
Eventually, NASA is planning a return mission with the European Space Agency to collect the stored samples and return them to Earth, sometime in the 2030s.