NASA’s Perseverance rover, currently exploring Mars’s Jezero Crater, has collected its first sample of dirt from the Martian surface. The rover has been collecting rock samples up until this point, but this month it has added scooping of the soil from the planet’s surface, called regolith, to its collection. The plan is for a future mission to collect these samples and bring them back to Earth for study.
Studying this dusty matter is particularly important for designing tools and equipment for future Mars exploration. “Everything we learn about the size, shape, and chemistry of regolith grains helps us design and test better tools for future missions,” said Iona Tirona of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a statement.
One of the difficulties in designing tools for Mars is the high level of dust on the planet. Mars experiences large dust storms, and this dust can get inside equipment that wears components down and gums parts up. To understand how to filter out the dust, designers need to know more about the composition of this dust, which they can learn about by studying the regolith.
“If we have a more permanent presence on Mars, we need to know how the dust and regolith will interact with our spacecraft and habitats,” explained Perseverance team member Erin Gibbons. The dust can be dangerous for humans as well. “Some of those dust grains could be as fine as cigarette smoke, and could get into an astronaut’s breathing apparatus. We want a fuller picture of which materials would be harmful to our explorers, whether they’re human or robotic.”
Another reason to study regolith is for scientific interest, as it seems to be made up of a wide variety of different particles. Analyzing the different types and quantities of these particles can help tell the history of Mars and how rocks have been broken down over time. “There are so many different materials mixed into Martian regolith,” said Libby Hausrath, one of Perseverance’s sample return scientists. “Each sample represents an integrated history of the planet’s surface.”
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