Mt-Washburn-rocks

Stitched together from 18 images taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover, this mosaic shows a boulder field on “Mount Washburn” on May 27. Intrigued by the diversity of textures and chemical composition in the light-toned boulder at center, the rover’s science team nicknamed the rock “Atoko Point.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

PASADENA, Calif. — In its quest to unravel the mysteries of Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover has stumbled upon an intriguing find: a peculiar, light-colored boulder that stands out among the darker rocks surrounding it. The speckled rock, affectionately nicknamed “Atoko Point” by the mission’s science team, measures 18 inches wide and 14 inches tall and has piqued the interest of researchers eager to learn more about the Red Planet’s geological history.

The discovery came after the rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021, took a detour through a dune field in the ancient river channel Neretva Vallis to avoid boulders that could damage its wheels. The rocky terrain had slowed Perseverance’s progress to just tens of meters per Martian day, or sol, a far cry from the average of over a hundred meters per sol it had previously achieved.

Determined to find a way through, the rover’s route planning team spotted an opportunity in the quarter-mile dune field.

“We had been eyeing the river channel just to the north as we went, hoping to find a section where the dunes were small and far enough apart for a rover to pass between — because dunes have been known to eat Mars rovers,” says Evan Graser, Perseverance’s deputy strategic route planner lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, in a media release.

With the help of its auto-navigation system, Perseverance successfully traversed the dune field, covering 656 feet in a single sol to reach its first science stop, a hill called “Mount Washburn.” It was here that the rover’s instruments, SuperCam and Mastcam-Z, revealed Atoko Point’s unique composition: a combination of the minerals pyroxene and feldspar.

Stitched together from 18 images taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover, this mosaic shows a boulder field on “Mount Washburn” on May 27.
Stitched together from 18 images taken by NASA’s Perseverance rover, this mosaic shows a boulder field on “Mount Washburn” on May 27. Intrigued by the diversity of textures and chemical composition in the light-toned boulder at center, the rover’s science team nicknamed the rock “Atoko Point.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

“The diversity of textures and compositions at Mount Washburn was an exciting discovery for the team, as these rocks represent a grab bag of geologic gifts brought down from the crater rim and potentially beyond,” says Brad Garczynski of Western Washington University in Bellingham, the co-lead of the current science campaign. “But among all these different rocks, there was one that really caught our attention.”

Atoko Point’s size, shape, and mineral composition set it apart from the other rocks in the area, leading scientists to speculate about its origins. Some believe that the minerals were produced in a subsurface magma body that is now exposed on the crater rim, while others suggest that the boulder may have been transported from far beyond Jezero Crater’s walls by powerful Martian waters in the distant past.

After studying Atoko Point, Perseverance continued its journey, traveling 433 feet north to investigate the geology of “Tuff Cliff” before embarking on a four-sol, 1,985-foot trip to its current location, an area nicknamed “Bright Angel.” The rover is now analyzing a rocky outcrop to determine whether a rock core sample should be collected for eventual return to Earth.

NASA’s Perseverance rover was traveling in the ancient Neretva Vallis river channel when it captured this view of an area of scientific interest named “Bright Angel” — the light-toned area in the distance at right — with one of its navigation cameras on June 6.
NASA’s Perseverance rover was traveling in the ancient Neretva Vallis river channel when it captured this view of an area of scientific interest named “Bright Angel” — the light-toned area in the distance at right — with one of its navigation cameras on June 6. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance’s mission is focused on astrobiology, including the collection of samples that may contain evidence of ancient microbial life. By characterizing Mars’ geology and past climate, the rover is helping to pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. This mission is part of NASA’s larger Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon designed to prepare for future human exploration of Mars.

The discovery of Atoko Point is just one example of the surprising and diverse geological features waiting to be uncovered on Mars. As Perseverance continues its exploration of Jezero Crater, scientists eagerly await the next groundbreaking find that could help unlock the secrets of the Red Planet’s past and shape our understanding of its potential to support life. Perseverance’s journey is not without its challenges, as demonstrated by the need to navigate through the boulder-strewn terrain of Neretva Vallis. However, the rover’s advanced technology and the ingenuity of its team have allowed it to overcome these obstacles and continue its vital scientific work.

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.

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