NASA has taken a significant step forward in getting Mars samples back to Earth after its Perseverance rover deposited its first rock-filled tube on the martian surface for possible collection by a later mission.
Perseverance, which has been gathering samples from Mars since arriving there in February 2021, deposited the sample on Wednesday, December 21.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the rover mission, called it “one small drop for humankind.”
Over the next two months, Perseverance will place nine more titanium tubes at the same location, called “Three Forks,” as it builds what NASA is calling “humanity’s first sample depot on another planet.”
Perseverance is keeping hold of duplicate samples of each one that it leaves at the depot.
In the complex Mars Sample Return mission currently scheduled for 2033, Perseverance will attempt to deliver its samples to a robotic lander sent by NASA. The lander will then use its robotic arm to transfer the tubes to a containment capsule aboard a small rocket. This rocket will blast off into the martian skies and deliver the collection to a spacecraft, which will transport them to Earth.
If Perseverance is unable to deliver its samples to the lander, Sample Recovery Helicopters — based on the design of NASA’s Mars-based Ingenuity aircraft — will fly to the depot to gather the samples from there instead.
Once they reach Earth, the samples will undergo detailed analysis to help us learn more about how Mars evolved, and hopefully confirm whether or not microbial life ever existed there. Such a discovery could also help scientists learn more about how life developed here on Earth.
According to JPL, the first sample left at the depot is a chalk-size core of igneous rock informally named “Malay.” It was gathered from a region of Mars’ Jezero Crater called South Séítah on January 31, 2022.
“Perseverance’s complex Sampling and System took almost an hour to retrieve the metal tube from inside the rover’s belly, view it one last time with its internal CacheCam, and drop the sample roughly 3 feet (89 centimeters) onto a carefully selected patch of martian surface,” JPL said in an online post on Wednesday.
In a crucial part of the operation, JPL engineers used Perseverance’s WATSON camera on the rover’s robotic arm to make sure the tube hadn’t rolled into the path of the rover’s wheels. Thankfully, it hadn’t.
“Seeing our first sample on the ground is a great capstone to our prime mission period, which ends on January 6,” said Rick Welch, Perseverance’s deputy project manager at JPL. “It’s a nice alignment that, just as we’re starting our cache, we’re also closing this first chapter of the mission.”
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