NASA Perseverance Mars rover is preparing to gather its first rock sample, which will be the first piece of Martian material ever transported to Earth.
The rover, which made a spectacular landing on Mars in April, has been busy testing its systems and supporting the Ingenuity Mars helicopter by communicating flight directions to the trailblazing aircraft. It also used the opportunity to take a really spectacular selfie.
However, NASA’s most advanced rover is ready to get dirty as it seeks to retrieve a rock sample from a dried lake bed as part of scientists’ quest to figure out if the planet ever hosted life.
The six-wheeled rover will travel to the Cratered Floor Fractured Rough, a site inside Mars’ Jezero Crater, in the following days. NASA believes it could include Jezero’s deepest and most ancient strata of exposed bedrock, covering an area of around 1.5 square miles (4 square kilometers).
All of the rover’s tools are designed to give the rover the best possible sight of the rocks and dust of Jezero crater, which was originally a large lake that has long ago dried up.
Perseverance will start its examination by evaluating a small section of light-colored paver stone in the exploring area. Perseverance will drill a small sample of the rock “about the size of a piece of chalk” if scientists believe it is of higher interest.
Other devices will be able to study it further after it is stored inside the rover. Perseverance will then deposit the sample in a special container, which will be collected by a future mission and transported to Earth, where scientists will analyze it with even more powerful tools.
While many mission observers may be hopeful that the sample would reveal evidence of ancient life on the distant planet, Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley warned against such hopes.
“Not every sample Perseverance is collecting will be done in the quest for ancient life, and we don’t expect this first sample to provide definitive proof one way or the other,” Farley stated. “While the rocks located in this geologic unit are not great time capsules for organics, we believe they have been around since the formation of Jezero Crater and incredibly valuable to fill gaps in our geologic understanding of this region — things we’ll desperately need to know if we find life once existed on Mars.”
NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, compared the planned sample collection to another significant event that occurred in 1969:
“When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the moon. I have every expectation that Perseverance’s first sample from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars. We are on the threshold of a new era of planetary science and discovery.”
Perseverance’s mission objectives include analyzing the red planet’s geology and past climate, as well as providing data to aid the first human missions to Mars, in addition to looking for indications of ancient life and assisting to send the first-ever Martian rock to Earth.