NASA's Mars Perseverance rover successfully drills rock samples

This time, the rock has not disappeared. After a disconcerting failure last month, NASA’s latest Mars rover, Perseverance, was able to ...


This time, the rock has not disappeared.

After a disconcerting failure last month, NASA’s latest Mars rover, Perseverance, was able to drill a rock sample on Wednesday. The rover took photos of the rock in the tube and sent the images to Earth so mission officials could be sure they had not returned empty-handed. Then Perseverance will seal the collection tube and store it in her belly.

The success, visible in images uploaded Thursday, is very likely a relief for scientists working on the mission.

“You can see a nice rock core,” said Kenneth A. Farley, professor of geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology and project scientist for Perseverance Thursday morning.

One of the key tasks of Perseverance is to collect rocks and dirt that will eventually be brought back to Earth by another mission so that scientists can study them comprehensively using state-of-the-art instruments in their laboratories, as they have done with moon rocks from the Apollo and Soviet missions from the 60s and 70s.

And yet, on August 6, the first time Perseverance drilled, collected, and sealed a rock sample, everything seemed to go perfectly except the tube was empty.

“It was definitely a bit of desperation,” Dr Farley said in an interview before the last drill attempt. “Everyone was so ready to claim victory. And then someone said, ‘Yeah, here’s a picture, there’s nothing in the tube.’ It was very deflating.

The rover used its cameras to look around and see if the rock core had fallen to the ground somehow. But there was no sign of it. The rock sample had, it seemed, disappeared.

The biggest concern was that Perseverance’s complex drilling mechanism had suffered a crippling malfunction and would not be able to collect samples at all. But after reviewing the data, engineers and scientists concluded that it was the rock, not the rover, that was to blame.

“The boulder just wasn’t our kind of boulder,” Jennifer Trosper, mission project manager, wrote in a NASA blog post August 19. The rover’s systems had worked as expected – “pretty well, actually,” Ms. Trosper wrote – but the rock was too brittle.

“The act of digging resulted in the rock breaking into powder and small fragments of material, which were not retained in the tube due to their size,” Ms. Trosper said. She added that despite numerous tests on Earth, “we had not encountered a rock in our test suite that behaved this way.”

Dr Farley concedes there were warning signs that August Rock might not be the best to try first. Its brown color indicated rust, it contained salts, and it was full of holes.

Rust, salts, and holes meant the rock had been left in a lake or water table for a long time. It was potentially a fantastic scientific discovery. Mineralogical changes caused by water could illuminate billions of years ago, when Mars was humid and habitable.

But a rusty, salty rock filled with holes can also be very crumbly. “We have learned a lesson,” said Dr Farley.

The operation was not a total loss. The tube has no rock or earth, but it contains sealed, uncontaminated Martian air, something the scientists planned to collect at another time.

For the second drill attempt, the rover traveled about 400 yards over a ridge slightly higher than the surrounding landscape, “and we selected the hardest rock you can find up there,” Dr Farley said. This rock, nicknamed Rochette, has survived through the ages and has not been blown away, strong evidence that it is not friable.

The rock looks like a piece of hardened lava, which can be dated precisely. Thus, scientists will be able to determine the age of this rock and this will help determine the age of the lower and older layers.

“It was a very valuable target,” said Dr Farley.

It will be more than a decade before Dr Farley and other scientists can get their hands on it. Perseverance at some point will likely cause the tightly sealed tubes to fall onto the Martian surface, awaiting pickup by a future rover, still on the drawing board.

This rover will carry the rock samples in a small rocket that will launch the samples on a trip back to Earth, but they won’t arrive until the 2030s.

Perseverance will continue to explore a 28 mile wide crater named Jezero, in particular an old dry river delta along the west bank. The rover is accompanied by a small robotic helicopter named Ingenuity which was added to the mission to test the ability to fly in the rarefied air of Mars.

While NASA had planned to leave Ingenuity behind after a series of test flights, it has proven to be such a success that the helicopter continues to follow with Perseverance, acting as a scout for the terrain in front of it. And it also improves the scientific mission of the rover.

Scientists intended to visit a site that looked striking in images taken from orbit. “Then we looked at the pictures from the helicopter,” said Dr Farley, and we were less than impressed.

“We will save a lot of time by not driving there,” he said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: NASA's Mars Perseverance rover successfully drills rock samples
NASA's Mars Perseverance rover successfully drills rock samples
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