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NASA solves mystery of missing Martian rock sample

NASA’s Perseverance rover attempted to collect its first rock sample from Mars last week. But when the mission team on Earth examined the collection tube remotely, it found there was nothing inside it.

It was an unexpected outcome as the collection process seemed to go exactly according to plan. Had the rock been inside the tube, NASA would’ve been a big step toward achieving its ambition of bringing the first Martian rock to Earth, giving scientists their first close-up look at the material as they search for signs of ancient life on the faraway planet.

Having spent the last few days puzzling over the mystery of the missing rock, folks at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the Perseverance Mars mission, believe they’ve worked out what happened.

In a message posted on Wednesday, August 11, JPL’s Louise Jandura said it appeared that the rock gathered by Perseverance was too powdery and therefore not robust enough to produce a core that was able to stick inside the collection tube.

“The material from the desired core is likely either in the bottom of the hole, in the cuttings pile, or some combination of both,” Jandura said, adding that a photo (bottom right) captured by Perseverance shows that some material is indeed visible at the bottom of the hole. She added that it was likely the uniqueness of this particular rock, as well as its material properties, that made it difficult to extract.

The drill hole from Perseverance's first sample collection.
The drill hole from Perseverance’s first sample collection attempt can be seen, along with the shadow of the rover, in the left image taken by one of the rover’s navigation cameras. The right image is a composite image of Perseverance’s first borehole on Mars, generated using multiple images taken by the rover’s WATSON imager. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

As a result, the team has decided to send Perseverance to its next sampling location in South Seitah, also inside the ancient Jezero Crater lake bed that scientists have pinpointed as an area of great interest. There, the team believes it will find rocks of a type that will pose fewer challenges for the rover’s collection tools. The sample collection is tentatively scheduled for early September.

Jandura said that the recent experience reminded her “yet again of the nature of exploration,” explaining that “a specific result is never guaranteed no matter how much you prepare.”

She added that despite the hiccup, the mission team could still be satisfied that it had performed the first-ever demonstration of Perseverance’s autonomous sampling system on Mars. It just needs to ensure the rock that it collects is robust enough to remain inside the tube.

The successful demonstration “bodes well for the pace of our remaining science campaign,” Jandura said.

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