NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars has confirmed the successful collection of its first rock sample.
“One up, still a lot to go!” Kenneth A. Farley, a professor of geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology and project scientist on the mission, said in an email.
On Monday night, NASA announced that the rover had sealed the tube containing the rock core, which is slightly thicker than a pencil, and stored it in its abdomen. That and other collected samples will be dropped on the ground to be collected by another spacecraft. They will eventually be returned to Earth, allowing scientists to study the mysteries of the red planet in much the same way lunar samples from the Apollo and Soviet missions expanded understanding of the moon.
For decades, planetary geologists have wanted to study rocks from another planet. They did that with bits of Mars that were blown into space by meteor impacts and later crossed Earth’s path and landed as meteorites. But with meteorites from Mars, scientists had no idea where the rocks came from — intriguing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but no way to find the other pieces.
With the Perseverance samples, scientists will know exactly which rocks the samples came from, and the rover will have conducted a detailed study of the surrounding geology.
Last week, the rover drilled the core from a briefcase-sized flat Mars rock nicknamed Rochette. The rock sample was clearly visible in the first pictures the rover took of the collecting tube.
But viewers on Earth were concerned when the rock was not seen in the following photos. They were taken after Perseverance used its robotic arm to shake the tube to help the sample sink to the bottom of the container. Mission managers were convinced it was simply hidden in the shadows, but after a failed drilling attempt last month, they wanted to make sure before sealing the pipe.
Later photos with better lighting showed that the rock was still there.
Rochette appears to be a piece of hardened lava, which can be precisely dated. This will allow scientists to determine the age of this boulder and help determine the ages of lower, older layers.
During the first drilling attempt in August, everything on Perseverance appeared to function flawlessly, but the pipe ended up empty. When they analyzed what happened, scientists and engineers working on the mission concluded that the first rock was just too fragile and the monster fell out.
One of the main tasks of Perseverance, which arrived on Mars in February, is to collect rocks and soil that will eventually be returned to Earth by another mission so that scientists can study them exhaustively using state-of-the-art instruments in their labs. Scientists hope to collect more than 30 samples from various locations in Jezero Crater, a landing site chosen because scientists on Earth believed an ancient river delta along the crater rim was a promising target for fossilized microbial life if it ever existed.
Perseverance is collecting the rock and soil samples but has no way of bringing them back to Earth. That will wait for the future mission, which is still being designed.
On Saturday, Ingenuity, the robotic helicopter that accompanied Perseverance, made its 13th flight, exploring a series of outcrops to help plan upcoming rides by the rover.