Santa came early this year to Mars.
NASA’s Perseverance mission dropped its first cache of precious rock samples into the Martian sands, leaving behind a record of material that a future mission could bring back to Earth. It’s a key moment in the search for life on Mars, NASA officials said in a statement Wednesday (Dec. 21).
The rover’s contribution to the search for “ancient microbial life” in an ancient river delta, NASA’s Jet Propulsion said in a briefing (opens in new tab)will feature 10 titanium tubes deposited at this location, nicknamed “Three Forks”.
Sometime in the 2030s, if timelines hold, either Perseverance or two helicopters (similar to the Ingenuity Mars flying helicopter that completed its 37th flight days ago) will transfer rock pipes like the one in Jezero Crater to a waiting ship.
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This tube is a stock spare, though. Perseverance collects twin samples at each location, and her mission calls for her to make the delivery herself, using the set of hidden caches inside the rover. But if needed, helicopters could be called in to pick up spare tubes left on the Martian surface.
However the tubes are delivered, a spacecraft will launch them into space and deliver the samples to a waiting orbiter to return the Mars samples to Earth. Apart from a few meteorites carved from Mars that fell to our planet, the historic mission will represent the first time that rocks from the Red Planet have reached Earth.
One of the basic ingredients of life is abundant on Mars, or at least it was in ancient times: Water. Huge canyons, massive icebergs and possible underwater reservoirs suggest that Mars was rich in water in the ancient past, despite the planet’s dry and dusty appearance today.
But whether there were enough to support life requires “ground truth,” which is where persistence comes in. Sending the samples back to Earth will give entire laboratories the opportunity to examine the Martian pieces for signatures of ancient life.
The first sample to hit the regolith is about the size of a piece of chalk, collected from an igneous rock nicknamed “Malay” on January 31 in an area called “South Séítah”. The Southern Seita is itself important. Scientists announced weeks before taking the sample that they had found organics, a possible component of life, in the same area.
The car-sized Perseverance took about an hour to spit the tube out of its belly, where the sampling and buffering system is located. The tube was dropped three feet (89 cm) onto a flat spot on the Martian surface as planned, and engineers on Earth imaged the area to make sure they didn’t accidentally run over it as Perseverance moved away.
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The pictures came back showing that the tube was very crooked and flat, but NASA had a contingency plan in case the tube ended up standing up in the sand. “The mission has written a series of commands for Persistence to carefully tap the tube with a part of the turret on the end of its robotic arm,” agency officials wrote.
Engineers tested the tube-flattening process with a Perseverance-like rover inside the “Mars backyard,” a custom sandbox at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California where engines are tested in conditions similar to those on the Red Planet. Standing deposits occurred about five percent of the time in these simulations, so the mission has a backup.
The landmark drop comes just weeks before the end of Perseverance’s flagship mission on January 6, 2023. The mission will mark two Earth years on the Martian surface on February 18. The rover will continue to roam through mission extension, based on its scientific publications and contributions such as this sample return.
“It’s a nice alignment that, just as we’re launching our cache, we’re also closing this first chapter of the mission,” Rick Welch, associate Perseverance project manager at JPL, said in the same statement.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of “Because I’m taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) the Facebook (opens in new tab).