While we are all dozing off on Earth over the weekend, NASA’s Perseverance rover was hard at work sealing its first sample of Martian rock. The cored-rock sample, which is just slightly thicker than a pencil, was retrieved from a site at Jezero Crater, where there was once a huge ancient lake.
The core sample, now sealed inside an airtight titanium collection tube, is the first of more than 30 samples that are expected to be stockpiled by the rover before being retrieved to Earth in a daring, one-of-a-kind mission planned for the early 2030s. This sample retrieval mission, operated by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), will mark the first time materials from another planet are transported to Earth via spacecraft rather than asteroids and meteorites.
“NASA has a history of setting ambitious goals and then accomplishing them, reflecting our nation’s commitment to discovery and innovation,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This is a momentous achievement and I can’t wait to see the incredible discoveries produced by Perseverance and our team.”
“For all of NASA science, this is truly a historic moment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Just as the Apollo Moon missions demonstrated the enduring scientific value of returning samples from other worlds for analysis here on our planet, we will be doing the same with the samples Perseverance collects as part of our Mars Sample Return program. Using the most sophisticated science instruments on Earth, we expect jaw-dropping discoveries across a broad set of science areas, including exploration into the question of whether life once existed on Mars.”
The initial sample-taking process commenced on September 1, when the rover’s rotary-percussive drill located on the end of a 2-meter-long (7-foot) robotic arm approached a briefcase-sized rock, affectionately nicknamed “Rochette.” The core sample was then placed inside a storage tube, which was maneuvered to face the Mastcam-Z camera instrument so that mission engineers could have a look at what they stowed.
However, during the cleaning process — during which the drill vibrates the tube in five one-second bursts to clear any debris and residual material — the core may have slid down further inside the tube, hindering visibility. Bad weather made this task all the more challenging.
Over the weekend, when lighting conditions improved, NASA engineers performed further maneuvers with the rover’s robotic arm and camera. These latest images confirmed that the sampling process went according to plan, and mission control gave the command to complete the sealing of the sample inside the tube with serial number 266.
“With over 3,000 parts, the Sampling and Caching System is the most complex mechanism ever sent into space,” said Larry D. James, interim director of JPL. “Our Perseverance team is excited and proud to see the system perform so well on Mars and take the first step for returning samples to Earth.”
Perseverance’s sampling mission took place in a ridgeline known as “Artuby”, which borders two distinct geological units believed to contain Jezero Crater’s deepest and oldest layers of exposed bedrock. Once the samples are returned to Earth and analyzed in the lab with the most sophisticated instruments at scientists’ disposal, NASA hopes to unravel secrets pertaining to Red Planet’s geological history.
Like a huge jig-saw puzzle, the dozens of samples that the rover is scheduled to take across the crater will help piece together a story of what this ancient lake might have looked like billions of years ago, when it supported liquid water and perhaps even life. This journey will see Perseverance travel between 2.5 and 5 kilometers (1.6 and 3.1 miles) around a portion of Jezero Crater, which will be completed once the rover circles back to its initial landing location.
If all goes well and Perseverence is still operational, the rover will commence the second major phase of its mission on Mars, traveling to Jezero Crater’s delta region — a fan-shaped area where geologists believe a river met the lake. This region ought to be particularly rich in clay minerals that may preserve fossilized signs of microbial life.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.