Success! Perseverance Mars Rover Finally Collects Its First Rock Core

NASA's Perseverance Rover has succeeded in drilling, extracting and storing a sample from Mars, the first ever Mars sample that will be flown back to Earth.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement that "This is a significant achievement."

The rock the rover was trying to sample had already been crushed into powder by the time it attempted the manoeuvre for the first time on 6 August. It was then made into a tube. On the second attempt, which was made at a location several hundred meters away, everything went well. The drill bit created a thin cylinder from a Rochette rock measuring 70 cm in length. Engineers stopped the process to photograph the core inside the tube. They sealed the specimen on September 6th.

Perseverances now has Rochette's core, which is hermetically sealed in Perseverances belly. It will be there for many years to await any future spacecraft that might retrieve it. The goal is to collect about 35 cores that represent the geological history and Perseverances landing location, Jezero Crater. This site was home to a river delta billions years ago. It might also contain evidence of ancient Martian life.

It is not yet clear how Rochette fits in this history. This rock is from an area mission scientists called Citadelle. It stands high on a hill like a citadel that overlooks a valley. The geologically interesting layers found along the ridgeline are some of the most intriguing. These layers could have been formed by wind, water or volcanic eruptions.

According to Kenneth Farley (a Pasadena-based geologist and mission scientist), Rochette was found in the early investigations of the rover. Rochette has reddish spots and staining as well as small cavities containing salts. This suggests that it may have interacted with water at some point, perhaps at the bottom, of the ancient lake which once filled Jezero.

Discover planetary surprises

Rochette proved to be a better rock than the one the rover tried to sample when it was first trying to reach Roubion, a rock that is also found on the crater's floor. Roubion also showed signs of interaction with water. However, Perseverance was able to drill into the rock and it became dust. Farley says that the rover may try drilling into another rock like Roubion in the future, if it finds one with more strength.

Rochette could be basalt if further research proves it. Researchers could then use radioactive elements that have decayed in the rock to date its formation. This is a new scientific possibility, as no rocks from Mars have been ever returned.

Curiosity, NASA's previous Mars rover, landed in another crater in 2012. It found rocks that were unexpectedly too difficult for it to drill the opposite side of Perseverances original problem. Phoenix, a 2008 Mars lander had difficulty collecting dirt grains until mission managers realized that dirt must be kept out from direct sunlight to ensure that the ice between them doesn't melt, refreeze, or cement them together. Raymond Arvidson, who is a planetary scientist at Washington University, St. Louis, believes that Mars is a real world, full of surprises. He has been involved in a number Mars rover missions but not Perseverance.

Crunch time

Perseverance must now begin collecting cores more efficiently. It arrived in Jezero in February and it took six months to collect its first core sample. It is expected to collect its first suite cores from the Krater within one Mars year (or less than two Earthyears) of landing. The rover was a little over 2 km from Jezeros ancient River delta, its main sampling target. It is unlikely that it will reach this formation before next year.

Arvidson said that he is not worried about the speed of the mission thus far. The three months prior to the mission were spent testing and flying a small helicopter. It has flown a dozen missions so far, and it is helping mission scientists pick interesting routes for the rover. The rover has traveled 2.17 kms south and west from its landing spot, surveying terrain and performing experiments that don't involve drilling such as ground-penetrating radars to probe beneath the surface of the planets.

Perseverance will soon drive northwest, just a few hundred meters, into the region of South Setah. This area is full of sand dunes and ridges, as well as other rocks and boulders. The mission planners will be taking a short break from 2 October to 14 Oct., when communication with the rover will not be possible due to Mars' relative motion to Earth.

NASA and the European Space Agency have developed a complex series of robotic missions that will travel to Jezero to pick up Perseverance's samples and return them to Earth for scientists to examine. The time it takes for the samples to arrive on Earth will be 2031.

This article was published with permission on September 7, 2021.