While on Earth the last farewell was granted to the NASA InSight lander which concluded its mission (which lasted four years, of the two planned), on Mars work continues with the other missions still operational on the surface. In particular the NASA Perseverance rover has completed one of the most important steps regarding the future of space exploration.
As we have previously written the Mars 2020 mission has two parts. One is the on-site study of the Martian surface including rocks and regolith. The most ambitious part, however, is to bring samples from another planet back to Earth for the first time. The US rover in this case it is taking care of collecting samples of Martian rock and atmosphere and then transferring them to a lander that will land in the next few years. The latter will be part of the Mars Sample Return mission which should land a capsule on Earth (containing the samples) in 2033. In these hours the first test tube containing a sample has been deposited on the ground.
NASA Perseverance deposits the first test tube on Martian soil
The US space agency’s strategy includes two distinct parts to ensure greater chances of success. After the latest changes to the methods of carrying out the Mars Sample Return mission now the rover will be considered the main unit for the delivery to the lander (through a robotic arm built by ESA) of the test tubes located inside the rover itself.
However, foreseeing a possible operational failure of NASA Perseverance a backup strategy was needed. Since there is no longer a rover with the task of recovering the samples, it was decided to use two drones classy Ingenuity to recover (one at a time) the test tubes left on the ground by the rover. In fact, it must be considered that all the rock samples were collected twice so as to have a main sample and a reserve one.
Reserve samples will be left on the soil of Mars from rover. In these hours the first sample was deposited on the surface. The test tubes are made of titanium and are expected to withstand the harsh conditions of the planet for several years. There Road map plans to leave a total of ten test tubes in this area (known as the Three Forks) before the NASA Perseverance you start walking along the upper part of the delta which is located on the edge of the Jezero crater. The operations should last about two months.
At present they are 18 samples collected (one atmospheric, two regolith and 15 rock). The first sample chosen is the one called Malay and it is one “carrot” of igneous rock collected on January 31, 2022 in South Séítah. The engineers checked that the tube was not in the vicinity of the wheels of the rover in addition to being dropped horizontally and not vertically, as visible in the animated gif above (the latter option would complicate the recovery).
Since there isn’t one “GPS” (tracking/positioning system) on Mars the engineers relied on specific reference points identifiable both from the surface and from Space so as to find the test tubes even if they were covered in sand. NASA Perseverance has been on Mars for over a year and ten months (653 sols) and has traveled 13.91 km. The main mission will end in early January 2023 (it will then move on to the extended one).