NASA’s Perseverance rover drills first rock sample from Mars for (eventual) return to Earth

The second time seems to have been the charm of NASA Rover Perseverance Mars.

The car-sized robot likely caught its very first sample of the Red Planet, apparently digging a core drilled from a rock dubbed “RochetteThe mission team members announced Thursday, September 2. They stressed, however, that a little more data is needed before the sampling round can be conclusively declared a success.

This was the second such effort for Perseverance, which also made a sampling attempt on August 5. But the rock he drilled that day turned out to be surprisingly sweet, crumbling into pieces that did not enter the designated tube.

Related: Where to find the latest Mars photos from NASA’s Perseverance rover

Perseverance landed on February 18 inside the 28-mile Jezero Crater of Mars, which was home to a large lake and river delta billions of years ago. The rover has two main tasks: to look for signs of the past martian life on Jezero’s floor, and collect and hide dozens of samples.

These samples will be brought to Earth by a joint NASA-European Space Agency campaign, maybe as early as 2031. These will be the first pristine pieces from another planet that humanity has ever brought home – and the first of those samples now appears to be within Perseverance’s grasp.

After the failed August 5 attempt, Perseverance drove 1,493 feet (455 meters) to a new location, a ridge nicknamed “Citadelle” (French for “castle”). The Citadel’s spine features rocks that appear to have withstood wind erosion, suggesting they are hard enough to withstand drilling, NASA officials said.

The rover team quickly selected the briefcase-sized Rochette from the rocks at the top of the ridge and began a thorough assessment of the drill target. For example, Perseverance abraded Rochette’s top 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) last week, allowing researchers to take a look at his basement.

Rochette passed all the required tests, so Perseverance drilled into the rock with the hammer drill at the end of its 2.1m long robotic arm on Wednesday, September 1. Images transmitted by Perseverance shortly thereafter showed an intact sample core lying in the tube, as desired.

However, additional photos taken later “were inconclusive due to the poor sunlight conditions,” officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, which manages the Perseverance mission, wrote in an update Thursday. “Another set of images with better lighting will be taken before sample processing continues.”

This second set of photos was taken after Perseverance performed an activity called “percussion to ingest,” which vibrates the drill bit and sample tube to remove material from the tube lip. This jerk could have caused the sample to slide further into the tube, which would explain why it was not seen in the following images, JPL officials said.

The best-lit photos will be taken on Friday (September 3) and rebroadcast to Earth early Saturday (September 4). If these images confirm that the tube still contains an intact sample, it will be sealed and stored, JPL officials added.

Members of the mission team are confident that this will indeed happen.

“The project has got its first rock core under its belt, and it’s a phenomenal accomplishment,” Project Perseverance manager Jennifer Trosper of JPL said in Thursday’s update. “The team determined a location, selected and excavated a viable and scientifically valuable rock. We did what we came to do. We will overcome this little problem with the lighting conditions in the pictures and remain encouraged that it there is a sample in this tube. “

This composite of two images shows the hole drilled by NASA's Perseverance rover in the “Rochette” rock during its second attempt to collect samples.  The images were obtained by one of the rover's navigation cameras on September 1, 2021.

This composite of two images shows the hole drilled by NASA’s Perseverance rover in the “Rochette” rock during its second attempt to collect samples. The images were obtained by one of the rover’s navigation cameras on September 1, 2021. (Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Persistence will get a lot of practice hanging samples over the weeks and months to come. The six-wheeled robot carries 43 sample tubes, and team members said they aim to fill at least 20 before the mission ends. Each sample will be a cylindrical core 0.5 inches wide by 2.4 inches long (1.3 cm by 6 centimeters).

It took a little while for Perseverance to start digging into its basic science work on Jezero soil, as the rover was busy helping a friend. This spring, Perseverance supported and documented NASA’s first five flights Helicopter Mars Ingenuity, a technological demonstrator intended to show that aerial exploration is possible on the red planet.

Ingenuity now reciprocates perseverance. The small helicopter flies relatively independent reconnaissance trips for the rover, as part of an extended mission with the reconnaissance potential of Martian helicopters.

Mike Wall is the author of “The low“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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