After six months driving on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover attempted to drill into the Martian surface to take its first sample on 6 August. Everything seemed to go smoothly, but when the rover’s operators checked the sample tube after it had been sealed and stored inside the rover, they found that it was empty.
“It went really well, other than that the rock behaved in a way that didn’t allow us to get any sample in the tube,” says Jennifer Trosper, the Perseverance project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After combing through the data, the mission’s operators suspect that when the rover drilled into the rock to take a sample, it fell apart into a fine powder and sprinkled out of the tube.
“We need a more cooperative type of rock,” says Trosper. “This one was crumbly – it may have had a surface that was hard, but once we got in there all the grains just sort of came apart.” This didn’t happen during tests of the sampling system on Earth, nor has it been a problem with the other Mars rovers.
While it isn’t possible to unseal and reuse the sampling tube, researchers had requested a sample of the Martian air, and the sealed tube does contain that. “We weren’t trying to collect the atmospheric sample, but it’s not a waste of a tube,” says Trosper. Perseverance has 43 sample tubes, so there are still plenty of opportunities to collect Mars rocks.
Trosper says this disappointing attempt isn’t a cause for concern when it comes to future sampling attempts with Perseverance. During the next attempt, planned for early September, the team plans to use the scientific instruments onboard the rover to confirm that a sample was taken before they seal the tube and stash it inside the rover.
Eventually, the plan is that Perseverance will cache these samples on the surface of Mars to be picked up and brought back to Earth by a later NASA mission. Returning the samples to Earth will allow scientists to study them in much more detail than we can on Mars, especially when it comes to searching for possible signs of past life there.
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