NASA’s Mars rover is about to embark on a very special task.
In the early hours of Friday, August 6, Perseverance will collect its first-ever rock sample, marking a significant step in a major project to bring the first Mars material to Earth.
In recent days, the six-wheeled vehicle, which arrived on Mars in April, made its way to a location inside Mars’ Jezero Crater called the Cratered Floor Fractured Rough.
NASA says it could contain Jezero’s deepest and most ancient layers of exposed bedrock, and so may help to answer the burning question of whether any form of life once existed on the faraway planet.
This is it—the target for my first core sample. This rock may be the oldest I get to sample, so it’ll be a great start to my rock collection. #SamplingMars
— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) August 5, 2021
“Returning samples from Mars has been a horizon goal of planetary exploration since its inception,” said Bobby Braun of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is overseeing the Perseverance mission. “This is a moment countless scientists and engineers around the globe — including myself — have been focused on for decades. As a student in high school, I was inspired to consider an aerospace engineering educational path by such plans. As a young engineer at NASA, this quest consumed the first decade of my career.”
Braun points out that although Perseverance’s advanced on-board tools allow it to carry out a plethora of scientific investigations by itself, some research (e.g., geochronology through isotope-dating) requires more sophisticated equipment that’s only available on Earth. “Want to know specifically how old Mars is? Gotta bring back samples,” Braun says. “How about the detailed history of water, climate, or the potential for past life on Mars? Requires sample analysis in a lab here on Earth.”
JPL is aiming is to collect as many as 38 rock samples from a range of geologic units and surface materials. Material drilled out by Perseverance will be cored, sealed, and cached by the rover before a later mission collects the samples and transports them back to Earth.
In a blog post about the Mars rover’s imminent task, Louise Jandura, chief engineer for sampling and caching at JPL, said that later today, “the commands to Perseverance will be sent and the waiting begins.”
Jandura added, “The data will begin to trickle in during the middle of the night and the team will be up anxiously awaiting the first bits of information on how things have gone up to that point. The waiting will extend well into tomorrow until the final bits are down.”
The team has promised to post an update on Friday afternoon, hopefully confirming that Perseverance successfully completed its crucial assignment.