With a whirl of its drill, NASA’s Perseverance rover triumphantly collected its first rock sample from Mars on September 6, reports Maya Wei-Haas for National Geographic. A total of 30 Martian rock samples are planned for collection and may indicate whether the Red Planet ever hosted microbial life, CNN’s Ashley Strickland reports.
“For all of NASA science, this is truly a historic moment,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement. “Just as the Apollo Moon missions demonstrated the enduring scientific value of returning samples from other worlds for analysis here on our planet, we will be doing the same with the samples Perseverance collects as part of our Mars Sample Return program.”
The milestone comes after the rover appeared to have cored and collected a sample from the Jezero Crater’s floor on August 5. But when NASA scientists analyzed the data from the drilling experiment, they found that the sample never made it into the titanium tube. Researchers suspect the rock sample may have crumbled to pieces during collection.
On September 2, NASA released a statement and photos showing the Mars rover had drilled into a briefcase-sized Martian boulder named Rochette. The rock is located in the Citadelle location within the Jezero Crater. To ensure the sample was collected safely, the Perseverance mission team took additional photos before sealing and storing the rock sample into the tube. Photos taken by the rover’s Mastcam-Z showed that a speckled rock sample was inside the vial, but after the rover vibrated the tube to clear away dust, the sample disappeared from view in the images, National Geographic reports.
The mission team could not see what had happened until two days later when more photos were captured in better lighting, CNN reports. Thankfully, the rock sample wasn't lost after all; it had simply slipped further into the vial when the rover shook it.
“The project got its first cored rock under its belt, and that’s a phenomenal accomplishment,” says Jennifer Trosper, project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “The team determined a location and selected and cored a viable and scientifically valuable rock. We did what we came to do. We will work through this small hiccup with the lighting conditions in the images and remain encouraged that there is a sample in this tube.”
Perseverance is equipped with a rotary percussive drill and a hollow coring bit that penetrates rock, collecting samples slightly thicker than a pencil. The entire system is located at the end of the rover’s robotic arm, CNN reports.
Now that the rover has its first sample, it will continue to collect more for future research. A mission to return samples back to Earth is currently being planned for the 2030s, CNN reports.
“When we get these samples back on Earth, they are going to tell us a great deal about some of the earliest chapters in the evolution of Mars," says Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley of Caltech in a statement. "But however geologically intriguing the contents of sample tube 266 will be, they won’t tell the complete story of this place. There is a lot of Jezero Crater left to explore, and we will continue our journey in the months and years ahead.”