NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover Makes Surprising Discoveries


Taken by Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z instrument, this video features an enhanced-color composite image that pans across Jezero Crater’s delta on Mars. The delta formed billions of years ago from sediment an ancient river carried to the mouth of a lake that once existed in the crater.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The findings by rover scientists highlight the diversity of samples geologists and future scientists associated with the agency’s Mars Sample Return program will have to study.

Scientists with NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover mission have discovered that the bedrock their six-wheeled explorer has been driving on since landing in February likely formed from red-hot magma. The discovery has implications for understanding and accurately dating critical events in the history of Jezero Crater – as well as the rest of the planet.

The team has also concluded that rocks in the crater have interacted with water multiple times over the eons and that some contain organic molecules.

These and other findings were presented today during a news briefing at the American Geophysical Union fall science meeting in New Orleans.

Even before Perseverance touched down on Mars, the mission’s science team had wondered about the origin of the rocks in the area. Were they sedimentary – the compressed accumulation of mineral particles possibly carried to the location by an ancient river system? Or where they igneous, possibly born in lava flows rising to the surface from a now long-extinct Martian volcano?

“I was beginning to despair we would never find the answer,” said Perseverance Project Scientist Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena. “But then our PIXL instrument got a good look at the abraded patch of a rock from the area nicknamed ‘South Séítah,’ and it all became clear: The crystals within the rock provided the smoking gun.”

The drill at the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm can abrade, or grind, rock surfaces to allow other instruments, such as PIXL, to study them. Short for Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, PIXL uses X-ray fluorescence to map the elemental composition of rocks. On Nov. 12, PIXL analyzed a South Séítah rock the science team had chosen to take a core sample from using the rover’s drill. The PIXL data showed the rock, nicknamed “Brac,” to be composed of an unusual abundance of large olivine crystals engulfed in pyroxene crystals.

“A good geology student will tell you that such a texture indicates the rock formed when crystals grew and settled in a slowly cooling magma – for example a thick lava flow, lava lake, or magma chamber,” said Farley. “The rock was then altered by water several times, making it a treasure trove that will allow future scientists to date events in Jezero, better understand the period in which water was more common on its surface, and reveal the early history of the planet. Mars Sample Return is going to have great stuff to choose from!”  

The multi-mission Mars Sample Return campaign began with Perseverance, which is collecting Martian rock samples in search of ancient microscopic life. Of Perseverance’s 43 sample tubes, six have been sealed to date – four with rock cores, one with Martian atmosphere, and one that contained “witness” material to observe any contamination the rover might have brought from Earth. Mars Sample Return seeks to bring select tubes back to Earth, where generations of scientists will be able to study them with powerful lab equipment far too large to send to Mars.

Still to be determined is whether the olivine-rich rock formed in a thick lava lake cooling on the surface or in a subterranean chamber that was later exposed by erosion.

This graphic depicts Perseverance’s entry into “Séítah” from both an orbital and subsurface perspective. The lower image is a subsurface “radargram” from the rover’s RIMFAX instrument; the red lines indicate link subsurface features to erosion-resistant rocky outcrops visible above the surface. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/USGS/FFI

Organic Molecules

Also great news for Mars Sample Return is the discovery of organic compounds by the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) instrument. The carbon-containing molecules are not only in the interiors of abraded rocks SHERLOC analyzed, but in the dust on non-abraded rock.

Confirmation of organics is not a confirmation that life once existed in Jezero and left telltale signs (biosignatures). There are both biological and non-biological mechanisms that create organics.

“Curiosity also discovered organics at its landing site within Gale Crater,” said Luther Beegle, SHERLOC principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “What SHERLOC adds to the story is its capability to map the spatial distribution of organics inside rocks and relate those organics to minerals found there. This helps us understand the environment in which the organics formed. More analysis needs to be done to determine the method of production for the identified organics.”

The preservation of organics inside ancient rocks – regardless of origin – at both Gale and Jezero Craters does mean that potential biosignatures (signs of life, whether past or present) could be preserved, too. “This is a question that may not be solved until the samples are returned to Earth, but the preservation of organics is very exciting. When these samples are returned to Earth, they will be a source of scientific inquiry and discovery for many years,” Beegle said.

Six facsimile sample tubes hang on the sample tube board in this image taken in the offices of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Along with its rock-core sampling capabilities, Perseverance has brought the first ground-penetrating radar to the surface of Mars. RIMFAX (Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment) creates a “radargram” of subsurface features up to about 33 feet (10 meters) deep. Data for this first released radargram was collected as the rover drove across a ridgeline from the “Crater Floor Fractured Rough” geologic unit into the Séítah geologic unit.

The ridgeline has multiple rock formations with a visible downward tilt. With RIMFAX data, Perseverance scientists now know that these angled rock layers continue at the same angle well below the surface. The radargram also shows the Séítah rock layers project below those of Crater Floor Fractured Rough. The results further confirm the science team’s belief that the creation of Séítah preceded Crater Floor Fractured Rough. The ability to observe geologic features even below the surface adds a new dimension to the team’s geologic mapping capabilities at Mars.

More About Perseverance

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.

For more about Perseverance:


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Ron Long
December 17, 2021 2:23 am

Looks like the Mars Rover is doing what it was designed to do. The angled rock texture, capped by horizontal layered rocks, visible as the video starts, sure look like foreset beds beneath planar beds, ie, a sedimentary rock sequence. However, the seismic data shows the inclined texture going to depth, and additionally an igneous/volcanic origin. The most likely interpretation is that the inclined texture was
originally horizontal, then tipped by some tectonic activity, then truncated by moving water erosion. Interesting sequence of events, all of which are common here on earth.

December 17, 2021 2:30 am

The lower image is a subsurface “radargram” from the rover’s RIMFAX instrument; the red lines indicate link subsurface features to erosion-resistant rocky outcrops visible above the surface.


Joseph Zorzin
December 17, 2021 3:36 am

Here’s another YouTube channel dedicated to such imagery- and lots of it. And, the videographer adds explanatory text.

December 17, 2021 4:05 am


Jim Gorman
December 17, 2021 4:41 am

Amazing that we can design experiments to learn about another planet but we can not design experiments to categorically define how CO2 actually affects the temperature of the earth.

Reply to  Jim Gorman
December 17, 2021 5:05 am

A rock is somewhat different than a chaotic gaseous envelope. As to CO2, right now the group most concerned with how that gas affects earth temperatures is not overly interested in actuality.

Reply to  Jim Gorman
December 17, 2021 9:45 am

There have been multiple studies that portray CO2 as having close to zero affect on temperature. The problem is getting through the narrative pushed on the populace by the leftists. This is not a fight between scientists having differing opinions, it is a fight against political forces looking to control every aspect of human life.

Captain climate
December 17, 2021 4:42 am

Look we found rocks!
They’re going to keep dangling the non-zero probability of previous life on Mars to get funding, because nobody wants to finanxs geology.

Reply to  Captain climate
December 17, 2021 5:12 am

Actually “areology”.

Captain Climate
Reply to  Disputin
December 17, 2021 6:22 am

Hahah good point.

Reply to  Captain climate
December 17, 2021 8:57 am

That has always bothered me. Their have been as many false alarms about life and water detected on Mars as there have been Mars landers, to the point that I am cynical enough to not trust even the slightest such hints coming out of NASA, JPL, and others.

Reply to  Felix
December 17, 2021 9:16 am

Then, as a good scientist, disprove their hypothesis.

Reply to  Retired_Engineer_Jim
December 17, 2021 9:26 am

What a silly useless comment, especially from someone claiming to be an engineer and presumably logical, even if not to Spock standards.

Maybe they, as good scientists, should have had better proofs. Every single one has been shot down. Not a good track record.

Meanwhile, I have never claimed to be a scientist. I am just one of the unwashed masses, commenting on the sorry track record of those who claim to be scientists.

Reply to  Retired_Engineer_Jim
December 17, 2021 11:03 am

My first response was rather intemperate, so I will try better.

I am no scientist. I have no more ability to judge the accuracy of any of these Martian water and organics papers than I do to judge the validity of a Saturn 5 or Falcon Heavy rocket — or AGW.

What I do have, however, is the ability to judge results. Dozens of reports of Martian water and organics have been falsified over the years. Not a single one has survived. The most favorable interpretation is that the scientific process is working. The most cynical interpretation is that these people are guilty of finding what they are looking for, rather than collecting data and interpreting it dispassionately.

There is a very clear parallel with the climate alarmunists, albeit on a much smaller and weaker scale. I have no more ability to judge the accuracy of any of their reports than I do of the Martian water and organics papers, or of Marxist economics papers, or whatever theory lay behind Hitler and his Nazis. What I do have is the ability to judge results, and every single one of their predictions has come up shorter than a naked mole-rat’s belly.

So don’t tell me to disprove their hypotheses; that shows an inability on your part to read what I wrote. They, or rather their community, have falsified their own hypotheses better than I ever could. My complaint is of their track record, not individual papers.

Reply to  Felix
December 17, 2021 12:04 pm

The presence of water, at the time the rocks were deposited, in Gale and Jezero Craters has been confirmed multiple times.

Reply to  David Middleton
December 17, 2021 12:44 pm

Yes. I should have been more clear. But too many other reports have been gushing wishes than real.

Reply to  Felix
December 17, 2021 1:37 pm

The only one I can think of is the meteorite that was thought to have come from Mars.

The “science” of the Allen Hills meteorite is still unsettled.

Phyllosilicates (clay minerals) are abundant in both Gale and Jezero Craters. The geomorphology of both craters indicate fluvio-lacustrine depositional environments. Over the past 9 years, Curiosity rover has mapped an extensive sedimentary column in Gale Crater, confirmed the presence of phyllosilicates.

Clay minerals are hydrous aluminum phylosilicates. They either contain water or hydroxyl molecules in their lattices.

SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) evolved gas analyses (EGAs; see Materials and Methods) give additional information on the nature of the octahedral sheets of the Murray clay minerals. The temperature of H2O loss during heat-driven dehydroxylation of clay minerals is sensitive to cation content, occupancy, and the position of the vacant octahedral sites in dioctahedral clay minerals (2123). Peak H2O release of the Marimba sample occurred at 610° and 780°C, indicating the presence of both dioctahedral and trioctahedral components, respectively (Fig. 4) (2124). EGA data are inconsistent with the most Fe(III)-rich dioctahedral smectites such as nontronite, which have diagnostic dehydroxylation temperatures of <550°C (2124). Comparison of the dioctahedral-assigned EGA peak at 610°C with laboratory studies of dehydroxylation temperature systematics as a function of Fe content suggests that the dioctahedral smectite likely contains ~5 wt % Fe2O3, requiring that at least half of octahedral sites are occupied by Al (25). The peak water release at 780°C, assigned to Mg-rich trioctahedral smectite, is higher than the 725°C peak observed for YKB samples (24), indicating that trioctahedral smectites in Marimba have a comparatively lower Fe content.

Fig. 4 SAM evolved H2O release of Marimba and Oudam.
Background has been subtracted from the EGA traces. The counts are not scaled.

We know that Mars once hosted large bodies of water as well as we know that the Norphlet aeolian sandstone was deposited in an arid desert environment. I don’t need to have lived in the Jurassic Period to know that the Norphlet was deposited as sand dunes. I just need to understand sedimentary geology.

The team’s analyses are based on the same tried-and-true, well-established methods used to infer the geological processes that sculpted Earth’s rocks. “You don’t need magic new science to understand the geology of Mars,” notes Janok Bhattacharya, a sedimentary geologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.

Since its landing, the Curiosity rover has been gathering data as it makes its way up a long, gentle slope. So far, the rover has climbed across—and thoroughly scrutinized—a 75-meter-thick layer of material that seems to have accumulated under a variety of conditions.

“For the first time, researchers have a reasonably thick section of sediments that provide a long-term picture of what was going on on Mars at the time,” says Kevin Bohacs, a sedimentary geologist at ExxonMobil in Houston, Texas.

The lowest layers of rocks, and therefore the first to accumulate, are chaotically layered sandstones that include pebbles ranging up to 22 millimeters across (slightly larger than a nickel). These bits show various degrees of smoothing—evidence, Grotzinger says, that the rocks were fiercely tumbled by moving water as they hopscotched downhill within the crater. “How [these pebbles] are shaped and how they’re arranged in the sediments are consistent with their origin in the crater walls dozens of kilometers away,” says Douglas Jerolmack, a geophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Wind simply can’t move the types of sediment that water can,” Bhattacharya says. So, the size and arrangement of materials in these rocks strongly suggest they were deposited by running water.

It’s possible to assess the strength of the flows that carried the material by judging the size and roundedness of the largest pebbles, Grotzinger says. These were not catastrophic floods, he notes, but were ankle-deep to waist-high flows “probably akin to a vigorous canoe ride.”

The rocks immediately overlying the streamflow deposits suggest that over time, waters accumulated in that portion of the crater to form a small lake. That inference comes from the sloping deposits whose layers dip southward, away from the crater wall, at angles between 10° and 20°. These sediments—in geological terms, these clinoform sandstones—haven’t shifted to tilt since they were deposited, says Grotzinger; they actually stacked up on an angle as they formed. On Earth, such deposits develop when sediment-laden waters flow into a lake or other standing body of water.

With a sudden drop in current speed, the flow can no longer carry as much sediment, so that material falls to the lake bottom. As more and more sediment accumulates, the deposit grows, with much of the new material added on the sloping, downstream edge of the deposit. (Similar large slugs of sediment have formed at the upstream end of dam-created reservoirs such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell in the southwestern United States, Grotzinger notes.) It’s not likely that such layering resulted from windblown sediments such as volcanic ash or from the slumping of sand dunes or other loose material, he adds.

Gale Crater has thick layers of mudstone (AKA shale), sandstone and conglomerates. Some of the sandstones clearly appear to be aeolian, others clearly appear to be fluvial deposits. The mudstones are composed of clay minerals that release water when heated.

Perseverance is just getting started in Jezero Crater. It looked like a delta from orbit…

Now, it looks like a delta from ground level…

“Fig. 2 Stratigraphy of Kodiak butte.(A and D) Zoomed images of the two scarps of Kodiak (see fig. S2 for wider context). Elevation scales were inferred from a HiRISE DEM (14) and have systematic uncertainties of ±2 m. White boxes indicate regions shown in more detail in other panels. (B and E) Interpreted line drawings of the main visible beds (blue lines for individual beds and red lines for discontinuities), overlain on the same images. Units k1 to k5 are labeled and discussed in the text. (C) Zoomed image of k1 showing the change in dip from subhorizontal beds (topsets) to inclined beds (foresets). (F) Zoomed image of the foresets in k3. This unit has a coarse texture with several cobble-size clasts (white arrow). The erosional truncation of k3 by k4 is labeled.” Mangold et al., 2021

Reply to  David Middleton
December 17, 2021 5:59 pm

This comment should be a post in its own right.
Correction OK I got it, you already did that (just catching up).
I even commented there. Time for bed.

Last edited 7 months ago by Philip Mulholland.
Reply to  Philip Mulholland.
December 18, 2021 10:19 am

Martian and Lunar geology are two of my favorite hobbies… Is it odd for most of a geologist’s hobbies to be related to geology?

Reply to  Felix
December 17, 2021 3:29 pm

I Googled |reports of Martian water and organics have been falsified| but didn’t find anything serious. It did remind me about the experiment on the Viking landers that found evidence of something that could be microbial respiration, but was concluded to be some reaction that looked like respiration. Apparently, that’s not 100% clear, either.


Do you have references to the dozens of falsified reports of Martian water and organics? Did you mean to say “disproved”, rejected”, or “discarded?”

Reply to  Ric Werme
December 18, 2021 10:38 am

From the New York Times, November 10, 1976…

Project scientists, in reviewing results of the Viking I and 2 missions, said at a news conference here today that they continued to be confounded by the apparently contradictory findings made by the lifeseeking instruments aboard the two landing craft.

Dr, Harold P. Klein of the Ames Research Center, leader of the biology team, said of the test results with Martian soil samples:

“They do not vigorously prove the presence of life on Mars. They do not vigorously exclude the presence of life on Mars.”

Or, as Dr. Carl Sagan, an astronomer of Cornell University and member of the Viking team, remarked:

‘’There are clues up to the eyebrows, but no conclusive explanations of what we’re seeing.”

I can’t find the exact quote, but I recall Carl Sagan saying, “Viking either found evidence of life or some form exotic chemistry. But what is life, other than exotic chemistry?”

I’m fairly certain that there is no life on Mars today. However, I’m fairly certain that we have already found extensive morphological evidence of fossil life forms in Gale Crater.

Paul Penrose
Reply to  Captain climate
December 17, 2021 11:30 am

“In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.”
To me, the data we have to date is slightly in favor of liquid water on the surface at some in the past for some unknown amount of time, but I don’t believe it’s strong enough to make any conclusions one way or the other – yet. I’ll continue to have an open mind on the subject and see where the data leads.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Paul Penrose
December 17, 2021 7:08 pm

I wish god would provide some data as well.

Geoff Sherrington
December 17, 2021 4:28 pm

These Mars images are really quite wonderful technology, applause.
Here is a frame from the panorama video. Between the green and yellow lines there are several examples of paired objects, opposite the red arrows. This can happen when images are manipulated (for good or bad). Otherwise, do we see evidence for the tidy hand of a previous sentient occupant? Geoff S

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Geoff Sherrington
December 17, 2021 7:10 pm

Some very sloppy splicing of images. Perhaps Mann was involved.

Geoff Sherrington
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
December 18, 2021 5:14 am

Maybe splicing, but I think not. Remember, this is a movie showing these “pairs” in frame after frame. My guess is for simple chance throwing up rock patterns that catch the eye of those used to working with digital images. A higher resolution image would be helpful, like a still shot of 30 Mb or more . Geoff S

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