The Perseverance rover builds a cache sample on Mars

There are currently a number of rovers, landers and orbiters exploring Mars, gathering more information about the planet’s environment and its history than ever before. But to learn more about this place, and in particular whether there ever was life there, we need to bring samples from Mars back to Earth for analysis here. That’s what NASA aims to do over the next decade with its Mars sample return plan.

As part of this plan, the Perseverance rover is collecting rock and regolith samples as it explores Jezero Crater. These samples are then sealed in tubes which are deposited on the Martian surface, ready to be collected and brought back to Earth on a future mission.

The location where NASA’s Perseverance will begin depositing its first cache of samples is shown in this image taken by the Mars rover on December 14, 2022, the 646th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Perseverance will soon begin storing these tubes in a “sample depot”, which will eventually contain 10 tubes deposited over approximately one month. The location of the repository had to be carefully chosen so that it would be accessible by future missions, as the current plan is to have the samples retrieved either by rover or helicopter.

Inspired by the success of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter, the idea is that multiple sample recovery helicopters could transport the samples between their current location and a recovery lander. But it requires the deposit to be in a flat area without any danger like big rocks with plenty of safety for take offs and landings.

Individual tubes should also be carefully placed in the drop zone. Since each helicopter can only pick up one tube at a time, the tubes can’t just be left in a big pile. Instead, each tube must be placed in its own location several meters wide, spaced out in a zig-zag pattern. The need for precise placement is why it will take Perseverance about a month to place all the tubes.

The current selection of samples includes a number of rock types from around Jezero, as well as samples from the dusty soil of Mars called regolith. There is also a control tube called a witness tube, which contains no rocks but contains a sample of the atmosphere to check for contaminants.

“The samples from this repository – and the duplicates stored aboard Perseverance – are an incredible representative body of the area explored during the main mission,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, lead scientist for Arizona State’s Mars Sample Return program. University, in a press release. “We not only have igneous and sedimentary rocks that record at least two and possibly four distinct styles of aqueous weathering, but also regolith, atmosphere, and a witness tube.”

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