Martian rock sample deposited for return to Earth

Sample tube

The first champion is inactive. Nine more pipes will be dropped at Three Forks

The Perseverance rover has begun collecting evidence that could answer the question of whether there is life on Mars.

It dropped its first rock sample onto the planet’s surface to await retrieval and return to Earth.

It’s a key moment in the decades-long quest to bring materials home from another planet for laboratory study.

It is thought that only by studying rock and soil samples on Earth can the question of life be resolved.

The finger-sized sample tube was ejected from the robot’s belly and was later photographed to make sure it fell properly to the ground.

American and European space agencies plan to recover samples in 2030.

They may not be the ones now deposited at the location known as Three Forks, in Mars’ Jezero Crater. In fact, these are more likely the rocks that Perseverance will carry at that time, when the robot could drive well beyond the crater rim.

But the scientists can’t risk the prospect of the rover breaking down in the meantime with its collection of rocks stuck inside, prompting them to build an insurance vault now.

Map of parts of Jezero crater on Mars

Map of parts of Jezero crater on Mars

The Three Forks store ensures that something is available to pick up when the fetch mission arrives.

The first test tube to enter the repository is a volcanic, or igneous, rock nicknamed “Malay.” Three more examples of this type of rock will follow. Their chemistry would help researchers age Jezero crater and the wider geological history of Mars.

“There is also a variety of sedimentary rocks that record different deposition environments, such as a river delta or the bottom of an ancient lake,” said Perseverance mission scientist Meenakshi Wadhwa. “Some of these environments could have been habitable, and some of these rocks may hold evidence of ancient microbial life.”

There will be three sedimentary cylinders.

Additionally, Perseverance will release soil and atmosphere samples, along with a special tube that recorded conditions inside the rover, including any contaminants emitted by the vehicle.

Perseverance and ingenuity

NASA hopes Perseverance and its scout drone, Ingenuity, will remain operational for a long time to come

If the nightmare happens and Perseverance dies, the recovery mission will be headed straight to Three Forks.

It will have two drones, equipped with claws, to grab the tubes and carry them to the missile system which will then launch them off Mars for the journey home.

To date, Perseverance has drilled two samples of every rock sampled. This practice will end with the construction of the Three Forks store.

“We had this paired sampling strategy to make sure we had one pipe to put down in the depot and one pipe to take with us,” explained Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist on Perseverance.

“Once we build the repository, we will be able to move beyond this strategy and focus on acquiring a single sample. This is liberating in many ways for the science team, because we can think of more places and more types of rocks to sample,” he told reporters.


Malaysian rock core just after drilling and before encapsulation in its sample tube

By January, Perseverance will have completed its Jezero base mission. But with all robotic systems healthy and a lot of science still in the offing, NASA officials have already agreed to fund expanded operations.

The vehicle, along with its scout drone, Ingenuity, will soon ascend the delta mound overlooking the western portion of the crater.

A delta is a structure built from silt and sand discharged from a river as it slows down as it enters a larger body of water.

It’s the kind of feature that may have trapped evidence of past microbial organisms.

Perseverance will be investigating what appears to be evidence of flood activity, judging by the large size of some of the boulders scattered across the upper delta.

The robot will then move to the edge of the crater where satellite images indicate the presence of carbonate-type sedimentary rocks. These will also be a good place to look for traces of ancient biology.

Perseverance still has over 20 test tubes waiting to be filled.

Rover diagram

Rover diagram

The sample retrieval mission, which includes a landing pad, helicopters, robotic arm and return rocket, is expected to leave Earth for Mars in mid-2028, with a cruise time of about two years.

The sampling tubes he buys — from the Three Forks store or directly from Perseverance at another location — would be taken home on a European freighter, scheduled for 2033.

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