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This photo provided by NASA shows the first color image sent by the Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Thursday. NASA/JPL-Caltech via Associated Press

Ever since NASA’s rover Perseverance touched down on Mars on Thursday, Brunswick-based scientist Aileen Yingst has found it hard to leave her computer. 

Every image sent back to Earth from Mars is priceless, providing a glimpse into a world that Yingst and her team have planned for and looked forward to for years, and she doesn’t want to miss a moment. 

“Things we’ve only seen from orbit are now right there,” she said. “It’s been hard to tear myself away.” 

On the first multibillion-dollar NASA mission in almost a decade, Perseverance will search for signs of ancient Martian life, characterize the planet’s geology and climate, and “pave the way for human exploration beyond the moon,” according to NASA. The spacecraft will also collect samples of rock and sediment that other spacecraft could bring back to Earth for study. 

Yingst, a senior scientist with the Planetary Science Institute, is a co-investigator on the SHERLOC instrument at the end of the rover arm. SHERLOC – Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals – uses cameras, spectrometers and a laser to search for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life, according to NASA. 

The black-and-white context camera also has an assistant, aptly named Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering, or WATSON (admittedly a bit of a reach, Yingst said), which takes close-up images of rock grains and surface textures in color. 

“This particular instrument is designed to get up close and personal with the Martian surface,” Yingst said of SHERLOC. “It looks at shape, texture and composition of the very small … so grains within rocks, grains on the surface, all the size of a grain of sand or smaller … It will help us put together a story of what they look like, how they got there, how they’ve changed.” 

“It’s telling the story of Mars, of the world in a grain of sand,” she said. 

As a co-investigator, Yingst has two jobs. 

One is to help make decisions about what SHERLOC is going to do on any given Martian day, a 24:37 time period also known as a sol.

There’s a lot to investigate. The rover is situated in an ancient lake bed known as Jezero Crater. 

According to NASA, Jezero Crater is a 28-mile-wide basin located in the northern hemisphere. Around 3.5 billion years ago, a river there flowed into a body of water about the size of Lake Tahoe, depositing sediments in a delta. The Perseverance team believes the ancient river delta and lake deposits could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.

Armed with SHERLOC and WATSON, the team can take a picture of a given area to get a basic idea of the texture of the rocks on Mars, but can also go deeper and look for the mineralogy or organic compounds. Then, they can go deeper still and look at the elements, such as how much iron and magnesium is in the rock. 

“The deeper your look, the more resources it takes,” she said. “We are very cognizant that we are using taxpayers’ dollars to fly to Mars and do science,” she said, “and we’re very cognizant that we are doing science for the rest of the human race and doing it for the ages. So we want to be as efficient and wise as possible.” 

Her second job is to then interpret the data sent back in the images, and despite the short timeline, she’s already learning. 

“Even the first two images that were published immediately showed us a surface that had a range of rocks with different shapes, textures, fabrics. Some look smooth, some look weathered,” she said. “That tells us there are a number of different environments we can sample just based on the rocks around us. It’s pretty darn exciting.” 

Yingst expects to “go on Mars time” at the beginning of March. 

Normally, she’d get a hotel room, put up some blackout curtains and adjust to the odd hours. 

However, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into that plan, so now she’ll be transitioning to Mars time in her Brunswick home with her family. 

“The rover will probably have staff on and off Mars time for a good three months,” she said. 

If it works well, and her family doesn’t mind hearing her make lunch at 3 a.m., she might stay on the adjusted schedule until May or so, but for now they’re going to try it out for two weeks. 

Already, she hasn’t gotten a whole lot of sleep. Mars missions have been historically treacherous, meaning some tense waiting periods for everyone involved.

About half of all robotic missions to the planet in the last 50 years have failed, NASA said.

High-risk landing aside, the Perseverance mission has already had to live up to its name, pushing through the pandemic, which forced much of NASA’s workforce to go remote, as well as an earthquake last July that stopped takeoff with only 20 minutes to spare.

But, after six months and 293 million miles, the spacecraft hit the Martian atmosphere at 3:48 Eastern time Thursday afternoon.

Now the rover enters its “commissioning phase,” in which engineers will examine the vehicle and test its various systems to make sure it’s ready for the mission.

“If we get through commissioning … we could be on the surface for many years,” Yingst said, but “there’s no way to know, which is why it’s still a nail-biting time for us.”

Yingst, who worked from home prior to the pandemic, has lived in Brunswick for six years. She worked on Spirit and Opportunity about three years after those two rovers landed on Mars in 2004, and is still working on the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012. 

This story was updated at noon on Feb. 20 to correct the spelling of Aileen Yingst’s name.

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