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Drilling down on Mars

Rock core samples mark a major milestone for NASA mission

The collection site of the Perseverance rover’s first two rock samples NASA/JPL-Caltech

Drilling down on Mars

After a failed attempt earlier this summer, NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully extracted its first rock samples from the surface of Mars.

The U.S. space agency’s newest rover is collecting rocks after landing on Mars in February and then launching the Ingenuity helicopter in April in a first-time test of powered flight on another planet. More recently, Perseverance has turned to drilling on the red planet’s surface. Scientists hope the tubes of Martian rock will help uncover secrets of the planet’s history.

Although sticking some rock in a tube may sound simple enough, the process is anything but easy for a robotic rover operating millions of miles away from its mission controllers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. The first attempt in early August didn’t go as planned: The sample Perseverance tried to collect was softer than expected, and it crumbled.

But on Sept. 6, the rover successfully collected a core rock sample, then did so again at the same site two days later. Initial analysis suggests the material could be volcanic. The samples also contain salts, which could point to the existence of water on the surface at some point in the past, according to NASA.

That’s not too surprising—scientists think the Jezero Crater, where the rover is working, was once a lake. But the new core samples could indicate the lake existed for longer than just a few decades.

“These samples have high value for future laboratory analysis back on Earth,” mission scientist Mitch Schulte said. “One day, we may be able to work out the sequence and timing of the environmental conditions that this rock’s minerals represent. This will help answer the big picture science question of the history and stability of liquid water on Mars.”

Before that can happen, the samples must travel to a laboratory on Earth. Perseverance is scheduled to continue collecting cores from different areas of the crater and storing them in titanium tubes in its chassis. Eventually, the goal is for the rover to build a few depots to holds its rock samples until another mission can fetch them back to Earth for more analysis, the space agency said.

NASA scientists are already turning their sights to the next collection site—most likely a rocky region about 600 feet away.

But it will have to wait. Around the first two weeks of October, Perseverance will lose contact with its human team while Earth and Mars pass on opposite sides of the sun. That doesn’t mean Perseverance will sit idle: Mission controllers plan to stock up two weeks’ worth of instructions to send to the rover right before the solar conjunction occurs, allowing it to operate independently for a while.

In the meantime, mission controllers are celebrating.

“I cannot overstate the significance of these rock samples collected by Perseverance,” NASA scientist Meenakshi Wadhwa told the BBC. “This is a truly historic achievement—the very first rock cores collected on another terrestrial planet. It’s amazing.”

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is a former assistant editor for WORLD Digital. She is a Patrick Henry College and World Journalism Institute graduate. Rachel resides with her husband in Wheaton, Ill.

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