Perseverance arrived on Mars in February, but Ingenuity has stolen the spotlight in recent months. And that should come as no surprise — it’s the first human-made object to fly on another planet, which is amazing. However, Perseverance is undoubtedly going to have a bigger impact on our understanding of the red planet, and that starts now–or, rather, it should have. NASA has announced that Perseverance has failed to acquire its first Martian rock sample, something engineers had never seen in testing on Earth. NASA will have to figure out what went wrong and try again. Once acquired, that sample will live in the rover’s belly and could one day return to Earth for detailed analysis.
NASA focused on Ingenuity in the late spring and early summer, but Perseverance began making its way to interesting geological formations with Ingenuity in tow several weeks back. The team needed to find a suitable target for its first sampling procedure — technically it needed two similar targets. One will be analyzed using the suite of instruments on the rover, and the other is what will go into a sample tube for return to Earth.
Late last week, NASA found the perfect target and instructed the robot to use its arm to scrape away some of the surface material to expose the pristine rock underneath. The Sample Caching System uses an intricate robotic apparatus to move samples directly from the robot’s percussive drill bit into sterile containers, where the samples are photographed and analyzed before being stowed. Perseverance is equipped with 42 of these specially designed sample tubes, and NSA hopes to collect around 35 total rock cores.
You can see the hole Perseverance drilled in the above image. Below, that’s the sampling site after it was cleared off but before the core was drilled. Initially, NASA wasn’t certain if the rock was igneous (volcanic origins) or sedimentary (from layers of materials compressing over eons). Several sources are not saying they’re igneous.
Even getting one sample back to Earth would be a real boon to science. Most of the instruments scientists would like to send to Mars cannot be miniaturized and hardened for use on a rover like Perseverance. However, you get that material back on Earth, and you can do anything to it. Collecting the rocks is difficult enough, but it’s going to take two more missions to get those tubes back home.
NASA has started planning the missions that will pick up the rover’s precious cargo. First, we’ll need a mission to collect the tubes and launch them into orbit. Then, a second mission will have to rendezvous with the payload and ferry it back to Earth. When all is said and done, we could have these pristine Martian samples back on Earth in the early 2030s. First, though, NASA has to figure out what went wrong and try to collect the sample again.
Update 7:43 AM: Revised copy to reflect NASA’s latest statement that the sample collection wasn’t successful.
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