Humanity now has its first-ever sample depot on another planet, namely Mars where NASA’s Perseverance rover has just begun depositing titanium tubes containing rock samples.
According to NASA, over the next two months, the rover will deposit a total of 10 tubes at a location called “Three Forks.”
What is extraordinary about the samples is that they would be likely brought back to Earth as part of the Mars Sample Return campaign.
“Perseverance has been taking duplicate samples from rock targets the mission selects. The rover currently has the other 17 samples (including one atmospheric sample) taken so far in its belly. Based on the architecture of the Mars Sample Return campaign, the rover would deliver samples to a future robotic lander. The lander would, in turn, use a robotic arm to place the samples in a containment capsule aboard a small rocket that would blast off to Mars orbit, where another spacecraft would capture the sample container and return it safely to Earth,” NASA said.
The first sample is a chalk-size core of igneous rock informally named “Malay,” which was collected on Jan. 31, 2022, in a region of Mars’ Jezero Crater called “South Séítah.” “Perseverance’s complex Sampling and Caching System took almost an hour to retrieve the metal tube from inside the rover’s belly, view it one last time with its internal CacheCam, and drop the sample roughly 3 feet (89 centimeters) onto a carefully selected patch of Martian surface,” NASA said.
Dropping the titanium tube was a delicate operation since engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which built Perseverance and leads the mission, had to position the WATSON camera located at the end of Perseverance’s 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm to peer beneath the rover, checking to be sure that the tube hadn’t rolled into the path of the rover’s wheels.
“They also wanted to ensure the tube hadn’t landed in such a way that it was standing on its end (each tube has a flat end piece called a “glove” to make it easier to be picked up by future missions). That occurred less than 5% of the time during testing with Perseverance’s Earthly twin in JPL’s Mars Yard. In case it does happen on Mars, the mission has written a series of commands for Perseverance to carefully knock the tube over with part of the turret at the end of its robotic arm,” NASA said.
Once back on Earth, whenever that comes to pass, the samples will be subjected to a series of tests to establish Mars’ geology as well as look for signs if life ever existed on the planet.
In an illustration of how intense NASA’s engagement with Mars has been, its InSight mission has ended after more than four years of collecting unique science on the planet.
“Mission controllers at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California were unable to contact the lander after two consecutive attempts, leading them to conclude the spacecraft’s solar-powered batteries have run out of energy – a state engineers refer to as “dead bus,” NASA said.
NASA had previously decided to declare the mission over if the lander missed two communication attempts. The agency will continue to listen for a signal from the lander, just in case, but hearing from it at this point is considered unlikely. The last time InSight communicated with Earth was Dec. 15.
“I watched the launch and landing of this mission, and while saying goodbye to a spacecraft is always sad, the fascinating science InSight conducted is cause for celebration,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The seismic data alone from this Discovery Program mission offers tremendous insights not just into Mars but other rocky bodies, including Earth.”
Short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, InSight set out to study the deep interior of Mars. The lander data has yielded details about Mars’ interior layers, the surprisingly strong remnants beneath the surface of its extinct magnetic dynamo, weather on this part of Mars, and lots of quake activity.
Its highly sensitive seismometer, along with daily monitoring performed by the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and the Marsquake Service managed by ETH Zurich, detected 1,319 marsquakes, including quakes caused by meteoroid impacts, the largest of which unearthed boulder-size chunks of ice late last year.
Such impacts help scientists determine the age of the planet’s surface, and data from the seismometer provides scientists a way to study the planet’s crust, mantle, and core.
“With InSight, seismology was the focus of a mission beyond Earth for the first time since the Apollo missions, when astronauts brought seismometers to the Moon,” said Philippe Lognonné of Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, principal investigator of InSight’s seismometer. “We broke new ground, and our science team can be proud of all that we’ve learned along the way.”
[Caption for the main picture 1: NASA’s Perseverance rover deposited the first of several samples onto the Martian surface on Dec. 21, 2022, the 653rd Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]
[Caption for the picture 2: An image of the final selfie taken by NASA’s InSight Mars lander on April 24, 2022, the 1,211th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. The lander is covered with far more dust than it was in its first selfie, taken in December 2018, not long after landing – or in its second selfie, composed of images taken in March and April 2019. Because InSight’s dusty solar panels are producing less power, the team will soon put the lander’s robotic arm in its resting position (called the “retirement pose”) for the last time in May of 2022. Credits: NASA]