In an historic milestone for planetary exploration, NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully collected and stored the first sample of Martian rock.
The sample, a core from Jezero Crater slightly thicker than a pencil, is now enclosed in an airtight titanium sample tube, which will hopefully be retrieved and returned to Earth through a future Mars Sample Return mission. These samples would be the first set of scientifically identified and selected materials returned to our planet from another.
“Using the most sophisticated science instruments on Earth, we expect jaw-dropping discoveries across a broad set of science areas, including exploration into the question of whether life once existed on Mars,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA headquarters in Washington.
To take the sample, a rotary-percussive drill at the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm cored into a flat, briefcase-size Mars rock nicknamed “Rochette.” The arm manoeuvred the corer, bit, and sample tube so the rover’s Mastcam-Z camera instrument could image the contents of the still-unsealed tube and transmit the results back to Earth. After mission controllers confirmed the cored rock’s presence in the tube, they sent a command to complete processing of the sample.
Perseverance then transferred sample tube into the rover’s interior to measure and image the rock core and hermetically seal the container.
“With over 3,000 parts, the Sampling and Caching System is the most complex mechanism ever sent into space,” said Larry D. James, interim director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) which is responsible for manging the operations of the rover.
“Getting the first sample under our belt is a huge milestone,” said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley of Caltech. “When we get these samples back on Earth, they are going to tell us a great deal about some of the earliest chapters in the evolution of Mars. But however geologically intriguing the contents of sample tube 266 will be, they won’t tell the complete story of this place. There is a lot of Jezero Crater left to explore, and we will continue our journey in the months and years ahead.”
Perseverance is currently exploring the rocky outcrops and boulders of “Artuby,” a ridgeline of more than a half-mile (900m) bordering two geologic units believed to contain Jezero Crater’s deepest and most ancient layers of exposed bedrock.
Along with identifying and collecting samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and dust) while searching for signs of ancient microscopic life, Perseverance’s mission includes studying the Jezero region to understand the geology and ancient habitability of the area, as well as to characterise the past climate.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for the first human exploration mission to the Red Planet.