WVU researcher explains her role on Mars 2020 Mission team

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Over the last year West Virginia University geologist Dr. Kathy Benison has been part of the team guiding the work of the Mars 2020 Mission team.

Benison is an expert in extreme environments like Mars, and is working on a team of Return Sample Selection Participating Scientists on the mission.

Dr. Kathy Benison

The workhorse of the mission is the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover. The rover has cameras, microphones and a complete weather station all sending data back to researchers. The mobile lab weighs about 2,200 pounds and is about the size of a small car.

The rover landed in the Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021 and has been sending the sights, sounds and data back to Earth.

“The rover is collecting lots of science data that help us learn about Mars, and also give us a context for these rock samples we’re drilling,” Benison said Monday. “We use that data to help decide where we’ll collect samples.”

The rover has the capacity to hold 30 samples that are about the size of a finger. As the samples are gathered, monitoring equipment on the rover provides a material analysis that gives the team a preview of what it may contain.

“It’s hard to know if there are signs of biological activity or not, but there’s a lot of potential,” Benison said. “They are looking at some potential signs of biological activity from the past.”

The Jezero Crater area was selected because researchers believe it was once a lake and river delta with many different types of rock formations. A a mission contingency, the samples will be separated into two groups of 15 to wait for the next mission to bring then back to Earth.

A mission to return the samples to Earth will blast off in 2028 and the samples are expected to return in 2031.

“Potentially, the lander will be able to pick up both caches, but we’re not sure, we might only be able to pick up one,” Dr. Benison said. “So, we’ll have at least 15 samples we anticipate, but maybe more.”

Another tool on the mission is the Ingenuity helicopter. The aircraft is about four pounds and is designed to fly in the thin Martian atmosphere for about 90 seconds at a time. Based on mission data, the Ingenuity has flown a total of about 55 minutes for a distance of about 7,000 meters at a maximum altitude of 12 meters. Additionally, it represents the first test of powered flight on another planet.

“They anticipated that if it flew for just a few minutes it would be a success,” Dr. Benison said. “But, now it’s been so successful that it’s being used to scout out locations away from the rover.”

Dr. Benison said the weather station on the rover has detected strong wind, dust storms and very cold temperatures. She said the images show a variety of soil types and formations creating hope the Mars mystery can be better understood.

“It’s like layered sandstone and they make this ramp that goes up the edge of the crater,” Benison said. “That tells us there was some type of liquid, probably water flowing in and carrying sediment into that lake that is now that big empty crater.”

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