Less than six weeks after it began the task, NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has completed what the space agency is calling “humanity’s first sample depot on another planet.”
The depot contains 10 titanium tubes filled with samples of martian rock and dust collected by Perseverance in the two years since it arrived on the distant planet. Depending on how things pan out, they may be gathered up by another NASA mission and returned to Earth.
To be clear, the depot isn’t a building, nor even a box of some sort. It’s merely an exposed patch of land selected by NASA to store the samples.
Perseverance set down the first 18.6-centimeter-long tube for the depot in December, and after that added a further nine, with the last put down in recent days. The location of each tube has been carefully mapped in case they become covered with martian dust.
Perseverance gathered two samples from each collection site. One set has been placed at the depot while the other set remains on the rover. The plan is for the Mars Sample Return mission — currently set for the early 2030s — to use a robot to collect the samples from Perseverance, transfer them to a small capsule, place it on a rocket, and blast it back to Earth.
If the robot has issues taking the samples from Perseverance, efforts will be made to retrieve the samples from the depot instead.
Perseverance has been using its onboard tools to drill the samples from sites deemed to be of scientific interest by NASA’s team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is overseeing the current Mars mission.
It’s hoped the samples will contain proof that microbial life once existed on Mars. Such a discovery would help to reveal more about the red planet’s history, and perhaps provide clues on how life developed on Earth.
All of Perseverance’s search sites have been inside Jezero Crater, a place once full of water and which scientists believe has the best chance of containing revelatory material.
“Mission scientists believe the igneous and sedimentary rock cores provide an excellent cross-section of the geologic processes that took place in Jezero shortly after the crater’s formation almost four billion years ago,” the team said on its website.
The depot is done, but Perseverance’s work is far from over. It’s now heading to a higher part of the crater where scientists are keen to explore rocks that appear to have been washed into the crater long ago, and which therefore come from a place beyond Perseverance’s reach.
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