NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is expected to land on our neighboring planet by 18 February, 2021. The rover will first need to make the 64million km journey from Earth to Mars, then complete the harrowing entry, descent, and landing phase of the mission. Once there, it will begin searching for traces of microscopic life from billions of years back.
Searching for trace evidence of life is no easy feat though, that’s why the rover is equipped with PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry). The PIXL is a precision X-ray device roughly the size of a lunch box that is located on the end of Perseverance’s 2-meter-long robotic arm and is powered by artificial intelligence.
Inside of the PIXL is a finally-focused beam that the rover will use to discover where different chemicals have been distributed across the planet and in what quantity. According to NASA, “PIXL’s X-ray beam is so narrow that it can pinpoint features as small as a grain of salt. That allows us to very accurately tie chemicals we detect to specific textures in a rock,”
Discovering the make up of different rock textures is an essential clue when trying to decide if certain samples are worth sending back to Earth for further studying. On Earth, for example, rocks called stromatolites are made from ancient layers of bacteria, and they are just one example of fossilized ancient life that scientists will be looking for on Mars.
Once a rock sample has been identified by the PIXL, it will be collected using a coring drill on the end of the arm. It will then be stashed in metal tubes that Perseverance will deposit on the surface for return to Earth by a future mission.
The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of Mars. Once humans have returned to the Moon, which NASA hopes to achieve by 2024, the next phase of the mission will be to establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028.
Image credit: NASA