Mars rock sample deposited for return to Earth

The first sample fell. Nine more tubes will be dropped at Three Forks

The Perseverance rover has begun gathering the evidence that could answer the question of whether there is life on Mars.

He deposited his first rock sample on the planet’s surface waiting to be picked up and returned to Earth.

It’s a key moment in the decades-long quest to bring materials from another planet back to study in the lab.

It is believed that only by studying rock and soil samples on Earth will the question of life there be answered.

The finger-sized sample tube was ejected from the robot’s belly and then photographed to ensure it had fallen to the ground correctly.

The US and European space agencies plan to collect samples in 2030.

They may not be the ones currently deposited at the location known as Three Forks in Mars’ Jezero Crater. Indeed, it’s more likely that it’s the boulders that Perseverance will be carrying at this point, when the robot could drive well past the crater rim.

But scientists can’t risk the prospect of the rover breaking down in the meantime with its collection of rocks stuck inside, and that’s prompted them to build an insurance depot now.

Map of parts of Jezero crater on Mars

Map of parts of Jezero crater on Mars

The Three Forks store ensures that something is available to pick up when the scavenge mission arrives.

The first sample tube to enter the repository is a volcanic, or igneous, rock nicknamed “Malay”. Three other examples of this type of rock will follow. Their chemistry would help researchers age the Jezero Crater and the wider geological history of Mars.

“There are also a variety of sedimentary rocks that record different depositional environments, such as a river delta or the bottom of an ancient lake,” said Perseverance mission scientist Meenakshi Wadhwa. “Some of these environments could have been habitable, and some of these rocks may retain evidence of ancient microbial life.”

There will be three sedimentary cylinders.

Additionally, Perseverance will drop soil and atmosphere samples, as well as a special tube that records conditions inside the rover, including any contaminants given off by the vehicle.

Perseverance and ingenuity

NASA hopes Perseverance and its scout drone, Ingenuity, will remain operational for a long time to come

If the nightmare occurs and Perseverance dies, the recovery mission will be directed directly to Three Forks.

It will have two drones, equipped with claws, to grab the tubes and fly them to the rocket system which will then blast them off Mars for the return trip.

To date, Perseverance has drilled two examples of each rock sampled. This practice will end with the construction of the Three Forks store.

“We had this strategy of sampling in pairs to make sure we had one tube to put in the repository and one tube to take with us,” explained Katie Stack Morgan, assistant project scientist on Perseverance.

“Once we build the repository, we can move beyond this strategy and focus on acquiring a single sample. This frees up the science team in many ways because we can think of more locations and more rock types to sample,” she told reporters.


The Malay rock core immediately after drilling and before encapsulation in its sample tube

In January, Perseverance will have completed its base mission in Jezero. But with all the robotic systems sound and so much science still on the horizon, Nasa officials have already agreed to fund extended operations.

The vehicle, accompanied by its scout drone, Ingenuity, will soon climb the delta mound that dominates the west of the crater.

A delta is a structure built from the silt and sand dumped by a river as it slows upon entering a larger body of water.

It’s the kind of feature that could have trapped evidence of past microbial organisms.

Perseverance will investigate what appears to be evidence of flooding activity, judging by the large size of some of the boulders scattered atop the delta.

The robot will then move to the rim of the crater where satellite imagery indicates that there are carbonate-like sedimentary rocks. These will again be a good place to look for ancient microbial activity.

Perseverance still has over 20 sample tubes waiting to be filled.

Diagram of the rover

Diagram of the rover

The sample retrieval mission, including a landing pad, helicopters, robotic arm and return rocket, is expected to depart Earth for Mars in mid-2028, with a cruise duration of around two year.

The tube samples he acquires—either from the Three Forks store or directly from Perseverance at another location—would be brought home on a European freighter, scheduled for 2033.

Based on the architecture of the Mars Sample Return campaign, the rover would deliver samples to a future robotic lander. The lander would in turn use a robotic arm to place the samples in a containment capsule aboard a small rocket that would blast off into Mars orbit, where another spacecraft would capture the sample container and return it to Mars. safe on Earth.

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