NASA’s Mars Rover Collects First Planetary Samples for Return to Earth

By Reuters
September 11, 2021 Updated: September 11, 2021

NASA’s Mars science rover Perseverance has collected and stashed away the first of numerous mineral samples that the U.S. space agency hopes to retrieve from the surface of the Red Planet for analysis on Earth, NASA said on Friday.

Tools attached to Perseverance and operated by mission specialists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles drilled a rock core slightly thicker than a pencil from an ancient Martian lake bed called the Jezero Crater, then hermetically sealed it in a titanium specimen tube inside the rover.

The feat, accomplished on Sept. 6 and initially announced by NASA the same day, marked the first such mineral sample obtained from the surface of another planet, according to the space agency.

“We get to see a lot of things that rewrite the history books and what occurred Sept. 6 at Jezero Crater is right up there with any of them,” Lori Glaze, Director Of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said at the top of a news conference on Friday to make the announcement.

The space agency plans to collect as many as 43 mineral samples over the next few months from the floor of Jerezo, a wide basin where scientists think water flowed and microbial life may have flourished billions of years ago.

The six-wheeled, SUV-sized vehicle is also expected to explore walls of sediment deposited at the foot of a remnant river delta once etched into a corner of the crater and considered a prime spot for study.

Mineral collection is the heart of the $2.7 billion Perseverance project.

Among the early findings from preliminary analysis of the samples was the presence of salt, NASA said.

“The presence of salt indicates that this rock was subject to water,” Yulia Goreva, Perseverance Return Sample Investigation Scientist, said at the news conference.

“We can look at the composition and look for tiny inclusions such as … liquid bubbles or bubble fluids inside the salt. That would actually give us a glimpse of the Jezero crater at the time when it was wet and was able to sustain an ancient Martian life,” she said.

Two future missions to Mars, to be jointly conducted by NASA and the European Space Agency, are planned to retrieve those specimens in the next decade and return them to Earth, where astrobiologists will examine them for signs of tiny fossilized organisms.

Such fossils would represent the first conclusive proof that life has ever existed beyond Earth.

Perseverance, the fifth and by far most sophisticated rover NASA has sent to Mars since its first, Sojourner, arrived in 1997, landed in Jerezo Crater in February after a 293 million-mile flight from Earth.

Success of the first sample collection, taken from a flat, briefcase-sized rock using the rotary-percussive drill at the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm, was verified through imagery taken by the rover’s cameras as the sample was measured, cataloged and stored, NASA said.

first cored-rock sample of Mars rock
Perseverance’s first cored-rock sample of Mars rock is seen inside its titanium container tube in this image taken by the rover’s Sampling and Caching System Camera (CacheCam). (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via Reuters)

The rover’s sampling and caching system, consisting of more than 3,000 parts, was described by JPL’s interim director, Larry James, as “the most complex mechanism ever sent into space.”

“This is the first time we have ever collected a sample of a rock from another planet with the intention to bring that sample back to Earth where we can analyze it,” NASA’s Glaze said at the news conference. “This is perhaps the most challenging thing we’ve ever tried to do on another planet,” she said.

By Mana Rabiee