Perseverance Triumphs: How SHERLOC Was Brought Back to Life on Mars

SHERLOC NASA Perseverance Mars Rover

As seen in this artist’s concept, the SHERLOC instrument is located on the end of the robotic arm of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After six months of effort, an instrument that helps NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover look for potential signs of ancient microbial life has come back online.

After a mechanical failure halted SHERLOC’s operations on the Perseverance rover, NASA engineers conducted thorough testing and innovative fixes to restore the instrument. Their efforts, which included manipulating the rover’s components to free a stuck lens cover, enabled continued exploration and data collection on Mars, focusing on geological signs of ancient life.

For the first time since encountering an issue this past January, the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has analyzed a rock target with its spectrometer and camera. This instrument plays a key role in the mission’s search for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California confirmed on June 17 that the instrument succeeded in collecting data.

“Six months of running diagnostics, testing, imagery and data analysis, troubleshooting, and retesting couldn’t come with a better conclusion,” said SHERLOC principal investigator Kevin Hand of JPL.

Checking the Cover on Perseverance's SHERLOC

Imagery captured by a navigation camera aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover on Jan. 23 shows the position of a cover on the SHERLOC instrument. The cover had become stuck several weeks earlier but the rover team has since found a way to address the issue so the instrument can continue to operate. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, SHERLOC uses two cameras and a laser spectrometer to search for organic compounds and minerals in rocks that have been altered in watery environments and may reveal signs of past microbial life. On January 6, a movable lens cover designed to protect the instrument’s spectrometer and one of its cameras from dust became frozen in a position that prevented SHERLOC from collecting data.

Analysis by the SHERLOC team pointed to the malfunction of a small motor responsible for moving the protective lens cover as well as adjusting focus for the spectrometer and the Autofocus and Context Imager (ACI) camera. By testing potential solutions on a duplicate SHERLOC instrument at JPL, the team began a long, meticulous evaluation process to see if, and how, the lens cover could be moved into the open position.

SHERLOC Autofocus and Context Imager Cover

The cover for the Autofocus and Context Imager on SHERLOC — one of the instruments aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover — is seen moving in images captured by the rover’s Mastcam-Z instrument on May 11. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

SHERLOC Sleuthing

Among many other steps taken, the team tried heating the lens cover’s small motor, commanding the rover’s robotic arm to rotate the SHERLOC instrument under different orientations with supporting Mastcam-Z imagery, rocking the mechanism back and forth to loosen any debris potentially jamming the lens cover, and even engaging the rover’s percussive drill to try jostling it loose. On March 3, imagery returned from Perseverance showed that the ACI cover had opened more than 180 degrees, clearing the imager’s field of view and enabling the ACI to be placed near its target.

SHERLOC's Labyrinth Calibration Target

Perseverance’s team used the SHERLOC instrument’s Autofocus and Context Imager to capture this image of its calibration target on May 11 to confirm an issue with a stuck lens cover had been resolved. A silhouette of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is at the center of the target. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“With the cover out of the way, a line of sight for the spectrometer and camera was established. We were halfway there,” said Kyle Uckert, SHERLOC deputy principal investigator at JPL. “We still needed a way to focus the instrument on a target. Without focus, SHERLOC images would be blurry and the spectral signal would be weak.”

Like any good ophthalmologist, the team set about figuring out SHERLOC’s prescription. Since they couldn’t adjust the focus of the instrument’s optics, they relied on the rover’s robotic arm to make minute adjustments in the distance between SHERLOC and its target in order to get the best image resolution. SHERLOC was commanded to take pictures of its calibration target so that the team could check the effectiveness of this approach.

Calibration Target for SHERLOC

The calibration target for SHERLOC, one of the instruments aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover, features a slice of Martian meteorite, plus spacesuit materials, including helmet-visor material that doubles as a geocache target. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The rover’s robotic arm is amazing. It can be commanded in small, quarter-millimeter steps to help us evaluate SHERLOC’s new focus position, and it can place SHERLOC with high accuracy on a target,” said Uckert. “After testing first on Earth and then on Mars, we figured out the best distance for the robotic arm to place SHERLOC is about 40 millimeters,” or 1.58 inches. “At that distance, the data we collect should be as good as ever.”

Confirmation of that fine positioning of the ACI on a Martian rock target came down on May 20. The verification on June 17 that the spectrometer is also functional checked the team’s last box, confirming that SHERLOC is operational.

Perseverance’s Abrasion Patch at “Walhalla Glades”

This image of NASA’s Perseverance rover gathering data on the “Walhalla Glades” abrasion was taken in the “Bright Angel” region of Jezero Crater by one of the rover’s front hazard avoidance cameras on June 14. The WATSON camera on the SHERLOC instrument is closest to the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Mars is hard, and bringing instruments back from the brink is even harder,” said Perseverance project manager Art Thompson of JPL. “But the team never gave up. With SHERLOC back online, we’re continuing our explorations and sample collection with a full complement of science instruments.”

Perseverance is in the later stages of its fourth science campaign, looking for evidence of carbonate and olivine deposits in the “Margin Unit,” an area along the inside of Jezero Crater’s rim. On Earth, carbonates typically form in the shallows of freshwater or alkaline lakes. It’s hypothesized that this also might be the case for the Margin Unit, which formed over 3 billion years ago.

Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission, launched by NASA, is part of the agency’s Mars Exploration Program. Its primary goal is to seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to Earth.

The Perseverance rover landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, in the Jezero Crater, a site believed to have been the basin of an ancient river delta. The mission is also pioneering the technology needed for future human and robotic exploration of Mars. Key objectives include the study of Martian climate and geology, the search for signs of ancient life, the collection of Mars samples, and the preparation for human exploration. In addition to its scientific instruments, Perseverance carries the Ingenuity helicopter, demonstrating powered flight on another planet for the first time.

4 Comments on "Perseverance Triumphs: How SHERLOC Was Brought Back to Life on Mars"

  1. I didn’t realize how religious NASA is until I read this article. Though covering its fix of a potential project-ending problem, the underlying purpose of NASA,to prove that the Judao-Christian God of the Bible did not creat life on earth (in six days), thereby proving that God a liar. And if NASA can prove God aliar about the creation, how could anyone believe His salvation story? Neat trick, NASA,but He did what He’s said. And He still loves all of you at NASA.

    • Clyde Spencer | July 6, 2024 at 9:08 am | Reply

      This is a science blog, not a Christian theology blog. You are in the wrong place if you are looking for support for your beliefs.

    • It’s not NASA, it’s you. Fundamentalism and literalism never survive science, or even just checking. Life beginning was objectively not in six of our 24-hour Earth-days, sorry, but you can still maintain your belief by asking yourself what six days are to a timeless infinite God.

      Even a holy book is a temporal man-made object written in our imperfect language. You can learn about your creator’s handiwork not just from Genesis but by directly studying creation. NASA is secular, but this is a journey you can go on with NASA. To witness creation, for now you have to.

    • Elizabeth L Hensley | July 8, 2024 at 11:26 am | Reply

      Peace! We are all on the same side! Both prayer and science are ways to find out truths. The Hebrew word for day is, “yom.” It can be used to mean time period, not just a 24 day. Notice in the second chapter it says, in the yom, (singular) “God created the Heavens and the Earth.” When Jesus said, “in the yom of king Solomon” He was not implying, neither did anyone ever think He was implying that King Solomon lived only a 24 hour period of time.And scientists, peace! We can be sure a lot of the folks at NASA were quietly praying for that lens cap to start behaving. Due to the Anthropic principles and near death experiences 51% of scientists now believe in God.We really are all on the same side!

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