Perseverance Drills Another Hole, and This Time the Sample is Intact

The Perseverance Rover joined a small group of robotic explorers on Mars when it arrived in February 2021. They were working to determine whether Mars ever supported life and characterize its atmosphere. The rover's primary objective is to collect samples of Martian soils and rocks, as it did with its predecessors. This cache will be used by NASA-ESA missions later.
This will be Mars' first sample return. The analysis of the samples will give new insights into Mars' geological and environmental evolution. Unfortunately, the first attempt at obtaining a sample failed. The sample fell apart before it was placed into the cache. The science team was determined to move on to the next site and attempt again. NASA has photos that prove the fact that the rover was successful in its second attempt, and it confirmed this a few days ago.

After two days of preparation and several weeks of driving, the mission team received notification about the successful retrieval. The mission team took additional photographs of the drill site, and the sample tube to ensure the retrieval went according to plan. After assessing and processing the tube, they transferred it into the rover chassis. Although this is not a standard procedure, the team insists on including it after the first failed attempt of the rovers.

August 5th was the first time a drill sample was obtained. The rovers Sample Caching Systems (SCS), which has three robotic elements, used its three components to drill and obtain a sample from Martian rock. The first element is the five-jointed robotic arms that can reach as far as 2-meters (7 ft) from the rover. It carries a large turret equipped with a rotary drill and can also carry a rotary percussive drilling machine. The bit carousel is the second component, and it provides drill bits as well as empty tube samples to the drill.

The same element also transfers sample-filled tubes to the rovers chassis where they are processed and assessed. The third element is the 0.5-meter (11.6-foot) sample handling arms (aka. The T-Rex Arm is located under the rovers and is responsible for moving samples tubes between storage and documentation stations as well as the bit cartousel.

Initial data from the rovers percussive drilling machine indicated that it had successfully drilled core samples. The SCS notified the team hours later that the tube had become empty after it was returned to the rovers chassis. The coring sample was too fine and fell apart when it was removed from the ground. It was then put in a tube and stored within the SCS.

The second sample collection target was a large rock that the team called Rochette. It is located along Artuby's ridgeline, which measures more than 900m (984.25 yard) in length. It borders two geologic units thought to hold the Jezero Crater's oldest and deepest layers of bedrock. Perseverance successfully cored the rock sample, according to data from the rover.

This Mastcam-Z image shows the Mars rock sample inside the tube. It was taken Sept. 1, 2021. The tube was then cleared. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The rovers science team wouldn't normally obtain additional imagery before sealing and conserving a Martian coring sample. The team felt that additional assurance was needed after what had happened on Aug. 5. Perseverance maneuvered Perseverance's corer, bit and open end of the tube for the Mastcam Z instrument to image.

Initial images showed that there was still a cored rock at the tube's end. However, the team decided to re-inspect the tube after it had been cleared. Percuss-to-ingest is a method that vibrates the drill bit to remove any remaining material from the tube's lip. After this, the Mastcam Z images were taken by the Rover (see above). The interior of the tube was also not visible because the light was dim in the second image.

On Sunday, Sept. 3, another round of images were taken. These images were returned to Earth the next day. The Perseverance team is positive that the sample was successfully recovered, but additional confirmation is needed. Jennifer Trosper, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory project manager stated in a NASA statement that:

This project was able to successfully core its first rock. The team selected a site and cored a scientifically valid rock. We accomplished what we set out to do. We will deal with this minor issue in lighting and we are encouraged by the fact that there is still sample in this tube.

A titanium storage tube that holds the first Martian rock sample (left), and an interior view (right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The titanium sample tube was then transferred to the interior of the rovers, where the mission team used instruments in the interior to image and measure the rock core. The tube was then hermetically sealed (serial number 266) and an additional image was taken. Finally, the tube was stored. The sample, which is approximately the same thickness as a pencil, is now stored inside the rovers chassis. Thomas Zurbuchen is the NASA HQ associate administrator for science:

This is a significant moment in NASA science. As the Apollo Moon missions proved the scientific value of returning samples to other worlds for analysis on Earth, so will we be doing the same with Perseverance's Mars Sample Return program. We expect to make jaw-dropping discoveries using the most advanced science instruments on Earth. This includes exploration into whether there was once life on Mars.

Perseverances instruments have been used by scientists to analyze Rochette since then. Once the sample is returned to Earth, it will be examined again. There it can be examined with instruments too large to fit on a rover. Scientists expect to learn a lot from the analysis of these samples about Mars' early geological history and evolution, including its transition from a warmer and more humid place to one that is now much cooler and wetter.

The Sampling and Caching System, which has over 3,000 components, is the most complex space mechanism, according to Larry D. James (interim director at NASA JPL). The Perseverance team is proud and excited to see the system perform well on Mars, and to take the first steps towards returning samples to Earth. This historic success was also made possible by the collaboration of NASA, industry partners and academia around the world.

Artists impression of Perseverance Rover inspecting a rock outcrop. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The initial phase of the rovers science operations ends once the rover has returned to the Octavia E. Butler Landing Site with eight of its 43 sample tubes. The rover will have traveled 2.5 to 5 km (1.6 mi and 3.1 miles) since its arrival on Mars. Perseverance will then travel to Jezero Craters, the region where it will conduct its second science mission.

This fan-shaped structure is the remnants of an ancient river that drained into the lake. The sediment has slowly accumulated over the years. This area is expected to be rich with clay minerals that are related to biological processes on Earth. It could also contain fossilized remains from ancient microscopic life. Delta fans can be a good place for looking for evidence that life existed on Mars billions years ago, before it lost its atmosphere.

NASA will hold a briefing on Friday, September 10th to discuss its mission milestones and inform the public about the Perseverance project's progress. This panel will discuss what the instruments on the rovers have discovered about Rochette, and the implications of this milestone for the sample retrieval mission NASA (and the ESA) have planned. This campaign is also known as the Mars Sample Return campaign and could launch as early as 2026.

The briefing will start at noon EDT (09 00 PDT). It will be streamed live on NASA Television, NASA App, the agency's website and various agency social media platforms.

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