NASA’s Perseverance rover thinks it’s Tom Thumb. 672 days after its arrival on Mars, it has just deposited a first sample of rock directly on the ground. This manipulation, wanted by NASA, is a turning point in the history of the mission.
When it was designed in the 2010s, NASA quickly understood the scientific limits of a rover. Since space and energy are rare commodities on Mars, not all experiments can be done on the soil of our neighbour. But the American space agency needs a maximum of data before sending men to the surface of the red planet.
An energy constraint
The decision was therefore made to split the mission in two. With Mars 2020 and the Perseverance rover, the agency will collect rock and dust. In 2030, the MSR (Mars Sample Return) mission will collect the samples for analysis on Earth.
Once on our blue ball, the best laboratories in the world will analyze rock and Martian dust to understand the mechanisms in place on our neighbour. The ultimate goal would be to find fossilized traces of life on the Red Planet. Such proof of the presence of life outside the Earth could change the way we see the Universe.
In order to be able to conduct these experiments, the first step was to drill into the ground of Mars to extract rock and dust. That was Perseverance’s job for the past 18 months. The rover, resting in Jezero Crater, an ancient lake on Mars dug tirelessly.
His findings were analyzed “in-house” with the few instruments at his disposal. They were then cut in half for storage. A first part filled the test tubes (see above) which will be used for the MSR mission, another part, identical, remains in the “belly” of the rover.
Test tubes: the treasure of the mission
In the titanium test tubes, the samples are protected against the weather and the Martian wind. They are now awaiting the arrival of the MSR mission to make their great journey to Earth.
Not one to brag, but this is pretty momentous. By dropping this one tube to the ground, I’ve officially started setting aside samples that Mars Sample Return could bring back to Earth someday.
Learn more: https://t.co/abNfyxE8Cy pic.twitter.com/SkjzFIn6Kd
—NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) December 21, 2022
With this first sample, called Malay, the Perseverance rover is moving on to a new stage in its mission. In total, 10 tubes will be sown over the coming month. NASA, which has carefully mapped the area, hopes to find this bottle at sea in a few years.
When the MSR mission arrived on Mars, two solutions were offered to NASA. In the first scenario (the most unlikely), the Martian dust has not yet covered the solar panels of Perseverance. The rover is then able to transmit its samples directly to the return rocket.
In the other hypothesis, two small helicopters, of the same size as Ingenuity, will play the role of delivery man, picking up the test tubes on the ground. Once the goods are found, the entire mission will return to the direction of Earth.