The NASA Perseverance mission releases the first sample of rock deposits onto the surface of Mars. The rover is leaving behind a record of material that a future mission will bring back to Earth. Officials from NASA declared it a key moment in the search for life on the red planet on Wednesday, December 21st.

The contribution of the rover to the search for ancient forms of microbial life in an old river delta, as stated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), involves the production of 10 titanium tubes to be stored and deposited on the surface.

Mars Sample Return

If the development programs hold, by 2030, Perseverance or two helicopters similar to Ingenuity will transport these rock samples from the Jezero crater to a waiting probe. The futuristic mission is already in development and is called Mars Sample Return.

In fact, the Perseverance rover will collect twin samples at each location of detection. The future recovery mission plans for the rover to deliver them on its own, using the set of samples stored inside. But if necessary, helicopters could be called upon to collect the reserve tubes left on the Martian surface.

In either case, a spacecraft will launch them into space and deliver the samples to an orbiter. The orbiter will then depart for Earth with the samples on board. Excluding some meteorites that have fallen on our planet, this will represent the first time that rocks from Mars will voluntarily reach Earth.

Search for Biological Signatures

One of the key ingredients for life was abundant on the surface of Mars. Enormous canyons, vast icebergs, and potential underwater reservoirs suggest that Mars was rich in water in the past, despite the dry and dusty appearance of the planet today. Whether there was enough to support life requires further in-depth studies that cannot be conducted autonomously by a rover. In this context, sending samples to Earth will allow entire laboratories to examine Martian fragments in search of biological signatures.

The first sample is roughly the size of a piece of chalk, collected from an igneous rock nicknamed Malay on January 31 in a region called South Séítah. This particular area is very significant. Scientists announced weeks ago that they had found organic substances, possible ingredients for life, in this same area.

Perseverance rover is about the size of a car and releases the first sample in about an hour. The tube containing the material was expelled from its metal belly, where the sampling and storage system is located. The tube fell from a height of 89 centimeters onto a flat point on the Martian surface as planned. At the same time, engineers on Earth surveyed the area to ensure that they did not accidentally pass over it while the rover drove away.

Studied in great detail

The return images show that the tube was well positioned and laid out on the surface. Samples are so valuable that NASA had an emergency plan in case the tube ended up straight in the sand. “The mission wrote a series of commands for Perseverance to carefully drop the tube with part of the turret at the end of its robotic arm” agency officials wrote.

Engineers tested the tube drop procedure for weeks with a rover similar to Perseverance inside the Mars Yard. This test area is an adapted sandbox in the warehouses of JPL in Pasadena, where machines are tested under conditions similar to those on the red planet. Drops that resulted in a tube positioned vertically occurred about 5% of the time in these simulations. Therefore, the mission requires an emergency procedure.

In the event that it does happen, the rover would use its robotic arm to carefully drop the tube onto the surface. The coming weeks, there will be other opportunities to see if Perseverance needs to use this technique. In the meantime, the rover will continue to deposit samples in the Three Forks area.

Stefano Gallotta
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