Perseverance Mars rover team revives life-hunting instrument after 6 months of effort

A key Perseverance rover instrument has been revived to continue its search for evidence of microbial life on Mars.

The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument mounted on Perseverance’s robotic arm had been out of action for around six months, due to a moveable protective lens cover not working properly because of dust.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) employed various strategies, including heating the motor, reorienting the robotic arm and even using the rover’s percussive drill in an attempt to free the cover. 

The cover for the Autofocus and Context Imager on the Perseverance Mars rover’s SHERLOC instrument, photographed by the rover’s Mastcam-Z instrument on May 11. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

By March, the team had managed to open the cover for SHERLOC’s Autofocus and Context Imager (ACI) camera, clearing its field of view. From there, the team found a way to use Perseverance’s robotic arm to achieve focus on targets. By June 17, they had confirmed SHERLOC’s operational status. 

“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 Kyle Uckert, SHERLOC deputy principal investigator at JPL, in a statement.  

“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.”

Related: Perseverance rover’s Mars rock sample may contain best evidence of possible ancient life

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.  (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)


SHERLOC uses Raman spectroscopy, which involves shining an ultraviolet (UV) laser on a target and analyzing the scattered light to identify molecular vibrations, which are used to reveal chemical composition. It also employs fluorescence spectroscopy to detect organic compounds. When UV light shines on organics, it excites their molecules, which emit light at different wavelengths, which SHERLOC then collects.

The instrument has been used to find evidence that the building blocks of life could have been present for a long time on the surface of Mars.

Perseverance touched down on the floor of Jezero Crater in February 2021, a landing area assessed to be the site of an ancient lake basin that could have high potential for past habitability.

The rover is in the later stages of its fourth science campaign, according to JPL. It is currently looking for evidence of carbonate and olivine deposits in an area along Jezero’s inside rim.

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