NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover reached the Red Planet in February, and weeks of never-before-attempted Ingenuity helicopter flights followed. Now Perseverance is ready to knock out a major mission of its own: collect Mars samples.
Perseverance is equipped with 43 titanium sample tubes that will collect rock samples from around the Jezero Crater on Mars.
The first Mars sample attempt performed as expected on Friday (the process is automated), but there was one problem. No Mars rocks were detected. NASA confirmed this with the absence of resistance in the sample tube would have been present if rockets were collected.
Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, expressed his expectation that NASA will solve whatever problem occurred:
While this is not the ‘hole-in-one’ we hoped for, there is always risk with breaking new ground. I’m confident we have the right team working this, and we will persevere toward a solution to ensure future success.
According to JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), which manages the Mars rover’s operations, the sample collection attempt was going as planned prior to discovering the lack of rocks:
Perseverance’s Sampling and Caching System uses a hollow coring bit and a percussive drill at the end of its 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm to extract samples. Telemetry from the rover indicates that during its first coring attempt, the drill and bit were engaged as planned, and post-coring, the sample tube was processed as intended.
Perseverance project manager Jennifer Trosper explained what could be the reason for the rover coming up empty-handed:
The initial thinking is that the empty tube is more likely a result of the rock target not reacting the way we expected during coring, and less likely a hardware issue with the Sampling and Caching System.
Over the next few days, the team will be spending more time analyzing the data we have, and also acquiring some additional diagnostic data to support understanding the root cause for the empty tube.
So what happens next? NASA/JPL are studying images of the borehole for more data, and a future sample collection attempt date will be set after analyzing diagnostics that may help explain what happened.
Fortunately, Perseverance has several dozen more attempts to collect Martian rocks and dust. A future mission to Mars is being planned to retrieve the Mars sample returns for a trip back to Earth where the pieces of Red Planet will be studied in labs around the world.
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