This sample, which will be returned to Earth by missions in the 2030s, could contain evidence of the existence of past life on Mars.
The rover also collected some of its earliest scientific observations of the Red Planet as it searches among the rocks and dust.
Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater in February. Billions of years ago, the site was home to an ancient lake and a river delta. As of June 1, the rover has been exploring a 1.5 square mile area of the crater, known as the “Cratered Floor Fractured Rough,” in search of the deepest and oldest layers of rock in the crater.
On the rover’s 7-foot (2-meter) long robotic arm is a drill that will help it collect samples to place inside its caching system in the rover’s belly. The process of collecting the first Martian sample from Perseverance will take around 11 days – much more than the 3 minutes and 35 seconds it took for astronaut Neil Armstrong to collect the first lunar sample.
“When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he initiated a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the moon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Directorate of NASA science missions, in a press release.
“I expect the first sample of Perseverance from Jezero Crater, and those to follow, will do the same for Mars. We are on the threshold of a new era of science and planetary discovery.”
Perseverance will receive instructions from its teams on Earth before collecting the first sample.
First, Perseverance will line up so that whatever is needed for sampling can be reached by the robotic arm, followed by an image survey using the rover’s camera suite. This survey will allow the rover’s scientific team to select the site of the first sample, as well as a separate target in the same area.
They will first analyze the second target before taking the sample from the first target.
“The idea is to get valuable data on the rock we’re about to sample by finding its geological twin (nearby) and performing a detailed in situ analysis,” said Vivian Sun, co-lead science campaign at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The rover will use an abrasive tool to scrape the top layers of the rock, clean it, and study it using Perseverance’s scientific instruments.
Together, these instruments will provide an in-depth look, including mineral and chemical analysis, of Martian rocks.
On the day of the sampling, the rover’s arm will retrieve a sample tube from its cache inside Perseverance’s belly and pierce about two inches into the intact twin of the rock it analyzed. This sample will be about the size of a piece of chalk.
Then the sample volume will be measured, photographed, sealed and stored in the rover.
Each sample will tell a different part of Martian history.
Dozens of samples to be taken eventually
As Perseverance continues to investigate this part of the crater, it will continue to drive and collect four unique samples. These will then be cached on the surface of Mars for a future mission to retrieve them and bring them back to Earth. The rover will collect around 40 samples during its two-year mission.
“Not all of the samples Perseverance collects will be done in the Old Life Quest, and we don’t expect this first sample to provide definitive proof in one way or another,” said Ken Farley. , scientist of the Perseverance project at the California Institute of Technology. , in a report.
“While the rocks in this geologic unit are not excellent time capsules for organics, we believe they have been around since the formation of Jezero Crater and are incredibly valuable in filling gaps in our geologic understanding. of this region – things we will desperately need to know if we find that life has ever existed on Mars. “
Doing science on Mars
The main objective of the Perseverance rover is to help uncover the history of Mars, taking us back to a time when the planet was warmer and wetter, with the aim of understanding whether life ever existed on the red planet. .
“We are collecting incredible data. The site we are at is absolutely spectacular, and we get magnificent views every day similar to a national park on Mars,” said Briony Horgan, member of the science team at rover and associate professor of planetary science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University at the College of Science, in a statement.
Perseverance was a bit of a summer road trip, covering about 100 meters (328 feet) per day thanks to its autonomous navigation capability.
Perseverance’s instruments can zap rocks with lasers to help scientists understand whether rocks on Mars are sedimentary or igneous, which would reveal more about water flow and ancient Martian environments. If the rocks are igneous, they were formed by volcanoes. But the sedimentary rocks would contain layers of information from the lake itself.
The rover is currently rolling on what scientists call cobblestones, and they are eager to find out if they are sedimentary or volcanic.
One hypothesis that scientists are trying to test is whether the lake in Jezero Crater has experienced multiple episodes of filling and drying up.
“This is very important because it means that you will have several periods during which we could potentially learn more about the environmental conditions on Mars,” Farley said. “And we also have several periods where we might be able to search for evidence of ancient life that may have existed on the planet.”
The images taken by Perseverance of the old delta of the river revealed something surprising.
There are signs that flash floods have occurred in the delta, possibly capable of moving large boulders, at the end of the lake’s history. None of this was visible in the images obtained from orbiters around Mars. It took Perseverance to investigate the field to find out.
Perseverance has spotted a multitude of rocks that intrigue scientists. One of them is a small hill of stratified rocks called Artuby, nicknamed for a river in the south of France.
The rocks appear to have formed in the lake itself, likely mud from the lake that turned into rock over time. And these rocks could contain evidence of ancient life or even microfossils.
“This is exactly the type of rock that we are most interested in studying while looking for potential biosignatures in this ancient rock record,” said Farley.