NASA Mars Rover Possibly Snags First Rock Sample

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By Angela Hickey

NASA’s newest Mars rover has snagged its first rock sample for return. After last month’s failure NASA rover, Perseverance, was launched into space on July 30, 2020. 

Designed in the wake of the success of the previous Mars rover, Curiosity, Perseverance landed on the desert planet with goals of finding ancient life and collecting samples of rock and soil for a possible return to earth. 

Perseverance eventually arrived in February at Mars’ Jezero Crater — believed to have been the home of a lush lakebed and river delta billions of years ago — in search of rocks that could possibly hold evidence of ancient life.

A month ago, during one of Perseverance’s first attempts, the rover drilled into much softer rock, causing the sample to crumble; Perseverance was ultimately unable to collect in the built-in titanium tube. The rover eventually moved on, driving about a half-mile to a better spot in order to try and retrieve a sample again. This attempt yielded much better results for the Mars team.

Perseverance rover’s chief engineer, Adam Steltzner, called it a perfect core sample. 

“I’ve never been more happy to see a hole in a rock,” he tweeted on Thursday, September 2 when news first broke.

Initial photos were taken Wednesday, September 1, showing a sample in the tube; later images were deemed inconclusive due in part to poor lighting, NASA said in a recent news release. The rock sample — gauged to be about the thickness of a pencil — could have slipped down deeper into the tube during a series of planned vibrations, the release said.

“The project got its first cored rock under its belt, and that’s a phenomenal accomplishment,” said Jennifer Trosper, project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “The team determined a location and selected and cored a viable and scientifically valuable rock. We did what we came to do. We will work through this small hiccup with the lighting conditions in the images and remain encouraged that there is the sample in this tube.”

Later on, NASA said it was awaiting more photos before they were able to declare definite success, though the “team is confident that the sample is in the tube.”

By studying these Mars samples on Earth, scientists will gain access to instruments more powerful than anything previously flown on robotic missions. There is also the chance to learn and share resources by sending samples to the best laboratories around the world, which will offer incredible opportunities for new discoveries.

According to The European Space Agency’s interim Mars Sample Return Programme Scientist, Dr. Gerhard Kminek, there are many reasons to study Mars. One of the most pressing reasons is that while life arose and evolved on Earth, we still don’t know if life had a similar chance on Mars. 

“Planetary scientists can study rocks, sediments, and soils for clues to uncover the geological and potential biological history of Mars. Then, by comparing those findings with Earth we also learn more about our own planet,” Kminek said.

NASA plans to launch more spacecraft to retrieve the samples collected by Perseverance; engineers are hoping to return as many as three dozen samples in about a decade.

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