NASA Says It Found Popcorn on Mars

Image of so-called popcorn rocks on Mars 7 photos
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
Illustration of NASA's Perseverance roverNASA Perseverance roverNASA Perseverance roverNASA Perseverance roverNASA Perseverance roverNASA Perseverance rover
It's not every day that the American space agency NASA says something shocking. A respectable organization by trade, the organization generally steers clear of sensational titles. Not this week, though, when it announced plain and simple that "Perseverance finds popcorn on planet Mars."
Perseverance, formerly known as the Mars 2020, is NASA's most recent rover to be sent to the Red Planet. It departed our world in the summer of 2020 and arrived at a place called the Jezero Crater in the spring of the following year.

The main mission of the rover is to search for signs of ancient microbial life in a bid to prove that the neighboring planet was once hospitable enough to support life as we know it. For that, it uses a series of instruments, including cameras, spectrometers, environmental sensors, and radars.

Packed as it is with hardware, the rover also acted as the initial launch platform for the world's first helicopter to be used in the atmosphere of another planet.

Small in size and looking a lot like some sort of insect (or drone, if you prefer a more techy comparison), Ingenuity took to the Martian sky a record 72 times, traveling for a total of 10.5 miles (17 km), reaching altitudes of 78.7 feet (24 meters), and staying airborne for a total of 128.8 minutes.

The helicopter did not make any important discoveries, but it did open the doors to an entirely new way of exploring alien places, a way NASA plans to use extensively during upcoming missions. For that reason, the agency calls the accomplishments of the helicopter a "Wright Brothers moment."

NASA Perseverance rover
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech
While on location on Mars, Perseverance was given yet another mission: it has been tasked with collecting samples of the Martian soil and depositing them at precise locations on the surface for an upcoming mission called Mars Sample Return.

Quite a busy and capable bee, this Perseverance, but did it really find popcorn on Mars?

First, here is a little bit about where the rover is now. After touching down in the Jezero Crater, the wheeled machine moved around quite a lot, traveling almost 17 miles (27 km) from its landing site. It presently does its thing in a region of the planet called Neretva Vallis, a formation that's believed to be an ancient river channel that fed water into the crater.

In this Vallis there is an outcrop of "diverse boulders and patches of lighter-toned bedrock" people call Mount Washburn. Interesting as this place is, it also gave the Perseverance a look at another place of interest, one so light-toned it has been dubbed the Bright Angel.

The rover arrived in the vicinity of this location this week, and it is here where the popcorn was found. Well, not actually popcorn, but rocks densely packed with small spheres that have a popcorn-like texture.

The space agency released an image of the place for us to get a better idea of what it's talking about (main photo of this piece), but to be honest I find it pretty difficultt to pinpoint the popcorn-like, sphere rocks we're being told about. Then again, I'm no geologist.

NASA Perseverance rover
Photo: NASA
By all accounts, even if they are not the movie snacks we all love, these things are described as unlike anything the rover has ever encountered before, strange textures that have "mesmerized” geologists.

Aside from these spheres of rock, the place is filled with rocks with sharp edges, in a much larger quantity that what was found before.

The initial assessment is that these features are yet another indication of groundwater flowing through this region at some point billions of years ago, but after the rocks were laid down.

Because of the strangeness of the place, NASA intends to keep the Perseverance in the region a while longer to perform a more detailed investigation. A trip upslope is in the cards, as scientists will look to find the place of origin for this rock sequence and how it relates to the rest of the Vallis.

When the time is right, probably as soon as next weekend (June 22), one of the rover's instruments, an abrasion tool installed on the rover's arm, will be used to take a close look at the rocks and perform a chemical analysis. Depending on what this analysis reveals, a decision will be made as to whether to sample the place or not.

After its mission in the Neretva Vallis is over, the Perseverance will head over to a site called Serpentine Rapids. It will probably find something of interest there too, but we only hope NASA will not call those findings some other food name, or anything that gives us false reason to hope we've found aliens.

Or if it calls them that, maybe it'll at least use some sort of punctuation that'll signal us it's kidding.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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