Mars rover accidentally adopted a pet rock

Life for Perseverance, the courageous rover that is currently roaming the Red Planet some 132 million miles from Earth, is pretty lonely. From the bleak, dusty landscape of Jezero Crater to the raging Martian winds, life on Mars is not for the faint of heart — or at least for those who are extroverts. So, despite being a robot on a scientific research mission, researchers on NASA’s Perseverance mission team were surprised recently to find that Perseverance had accidentally adopted a pet rock.

It’s unclear whether Perseverance chose the rock or the rock chose Perseverance, but scientists say the rock found a cozy home in the rover’s left front wheel, at which point it began to cling to it. According to a NASA press release about the rock, the rock has been there since early February and has traveled more than 5.3 miles around Mars; Perseverance itself has traveled a total of 11.8 km since it landed on Mars in February 2021. Fortunately, the rock did not do Perseverance any damage, although it certainly fulfilled its owner as it perseveres in clinging to the rover after so many kilometers. .

Stone stuck in Perseverance rover’s shoe (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This isn’t the first time a rover has adopted a rock – or rather, that a rock has chosen a rover. Nearly 18 years ago, a potato-sized boulder stuck to the right wheel of the Spirit rover, which operated on the surface of Mars from 2004 to 2010. Mission operators eventually had to dislodge the intruder remotely. The Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, saw rocks periodically lodged in its front right wheel. However, scientists say that generally these types of rover-rock relationships usually only last a few weeks – not months.

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Since landing on Mars in February 2021, Perseverance has amassed an impressive list of firsts. For example, the rover’s combined mission marked the first time a helicopter flew on another planet. Perseverance was also able to extract oxygen from the Red Planet’s carbon dioxide atmosphere, a method that could one day be used to deliver oxygen to astronauts on Mars. And perhaps most importantly, Perseverance has successfully collected and stored soil and rock samples that will eventually become the first Martian rocks to return to Earth for scientific study. And now it has also had a pet rock for the longest period of time of any rover – nearly four months and counting. Is there anything that Perseverance cannot do?

In other Perseverance news, an article published in Science Advances detailed Perseverance’s observations of hundreds of dust devils and their famous video of gusts of wind kicking up a massive cloud of Martian dust. Scientists say Perseverance’s observations of these weather phenomena, which were made during the first 216 Martian days of its adventure, could help predict dust storms on Mars in the future.

Related: The Strange Geology of Mars Annoys Scientists

“Jezero Crater may be in one of the most active sources of dust on the planet,” Manuel de la Torre Juarez, deputy principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, said in a press release. “Everything we learn about dust will be useful for future missions.”

The study authors found that at least four eddies pass through Perseverance on a typical Martian day – making Perseverance’s rock friend’s resilience all the more remarkable and impressive.

Is the end of the rock’s journey in sight? Scientists suspect that the rock may fall during a future ascent of the crater rim due to gravity. And if that happens, it will land in an area with rocks very different from itself. As Eleni Ravanis, a collaborating student at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, explained in the press release about the rock, a future Mars geologist would be stumped by the rock’s location.

“So: if you’re a Martian geologist from the future reading this, perhaps a Martian graduate student tasked with mapping the Jezero Crater historic site: pay attention,” Ravanis wrote. “If you’ve found a stone that looks out of place, you might be looking at Perseverance’s ancient pet stone.”

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