NASA’s Perseverance rover has confirmed it: there is Martian rock in this tube!
NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS
NASA’s Perseverance rover,, has completed the first, crucial step in a decades-long mission to return parts of Mars to Earth. On the 190th day of his mission, “Percy”, as the rover is affectionately known, overcame and snatched a rock, a little thicker than a pencil, from the surface of Mars.
On September 1, the space agency announced that data had arrived from the Mars rover indicating thisknown as “Rochette”. But the team, always hardworking scientists, wanted to be “extra sure” that this was the case. Of course, the rover would have to take a few photos of the drilling rig with one of its cameras and take a few more photos of the rock sample drilled.
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The first images beamed back to Earth appeared to show that the rock was successfully snapped. However, after an operation to vibrate the drill, a second round of images was taken. The sun didn’t play well with Percy, however. The lighting conditions were too poor to confirm exactly what was in the tube – and the team wanted to be doubly sure.
On Saturday they got their wish.
Adam Steltzner, NASA’s chief engineer on the mission, tweeted his congratulations on September 4th. “We have it,” he wrote.
The early images show rust-red sediment that could be iron-rich minerals, according to Steven Ruff, planetary geologist at Arizona State University and creator of the Mars Guy YouTube channel. Percy’s landing site in Jezero Crater was once home to a large body of water, and his two sampling attempts already reveal part of the geological history of Mars. “Both of these rock targets that you interrogated look different from anything else we’ve seen on Mars,” says Ruff.
The rock core is visible in the central ring, which is enclosed in the titanium manifold. This picture was taken on September 6, 2021, just before Percy capped and sealed the sample.
NASA / JPL-Caltech
Getting the Martian rock core into the sample tube is like putting a letter in an envelope. The next step is for Perseverance to process, seal and postage this envelope and prepare it for shipping. Perseverance has 43 of these envelopes and can collect dozens of different rock samples. Diversity will be key – it will allow the science team to compare rocks from across the Jezero crater, learn more about the history of Mars, and possibly whether life existed on the planet.
On Monday, NASA announced that the rover had kept the sample inside, enclosed in an airtight titanium tube. (I’m sure this will become a trivia question in the future, so the very first sample was kept in tube # 266 for reference). This was the moment the team was waiting for, one final maneuver required to show that the robot’s complex sampling mechanism was working. And it worked perfectly.
“This is truly a historic moment for all of NASA science,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s assistant science administrator, on Monday.
The collection is part 1 of the most expensive and complex mail item of all time.
Percy intends to leave these titanium tube letters scattered across the surface of Mars so that a postman can pick them up at a later date. The crux of the matter is: the postman isn’t even built.
NASA and the European Space Agency plan to send a Mars lander and a rover to the surface of Mars to collect samples in 2026. The rover (our postman in this expanded metaphor) will roll out, collect Percy’s tubes and place them in his postvan – – a rocket for Earth. Percy’s mail will finally reach its intended recipient sometime in early 2030, provided everything goes according to plan.
If the Post made it home, it would be the first time humans have returned materials from another planet.