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NASA’s Mars rover is about to embark on a very special task

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is getting ready to collect its first rock sample that’s set to become the first Martian material delivered to Earth.

The rover, which landed on the red planet in spectacular fashion in April, has been spending much of its time testing its systems and assisting the Ingenuity Mars helicopter by relaying flight instructions to the trailblazing aircraft. It also had time to snap a rather striking selfie.

A patch of ground on Mars set to be explored by NASA's Perseverance rover.
Perseverance will be exploring the area marked in the image above. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

But NASA’s most advanced rover to date is about to get down and dusty as it works to extract a rock sample from a dried lake bed as part of scientists’ efforts to discover if the planet once supported some form of life.

In the coming days, the six-wheeled rover will head toward a location inside Mars’ Jezero Crater called the Cratered Floor Fractured Rough. Covering an area of about 1.5 square miles (4 square kilometers), NASA says it could contain Jezero’s deepest and most ancient layers of exposed bedrock.

Perseverance will begin its task by analyzing a small patch of light-colored paver stone in the exploration site. If it’s deemed by scientists to be of greater interest, Perseverance will then drill a small sample of the rock “about the size of a piece of chalk.”

Once stored inside the rover, other instruments will be able to analyze it further. Perseverance will then deposit the sample in a special container for collection by a future mission that will transport it to Earth where scientists will use even more advanced analytical tools.

While many observers of the mission will be hoping that the sample will provide evidence of ancient life on the distant planet, Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley cautioned against such expectations.

“Not every sample Perseverance is collecting will be done in the quest for ancient life, and we don’t expect this first sample to provide definitive proof one way or the other,” Farley said. “While the rocks located in this geologic unit are not great time capsules for organics, we believe they have been around since the formation of Jezero Crater and incredibly valuable to fill gaps in our geologic understanding of this region — things we’ll desperately need to know if we find life once existed on Mars.”

Comparing the upcoming sample collection to another one of note that took place in 1969, NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said: “When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the moon. I have every expectation that Perseverance’s first sample from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars. We are on the threshold of a new era of planetary science and discovery.”

Besides searching for signs of ancient life and helping to send to Earth the first-ever Martian rock, Perseverance’s mission objectives also include characterizing the red planet’s geology and past climate, and gathering data to assist the first human trips to Mars.

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