NASA’s Perseverance rover has learned to drop certain objects on Mars

The campaign to build the first repository of research samples on the surface of Mars has begun. NASA’s Perseverance rover will drop 10 more samples to a site called Three Forks for about a month.

You already know about plans to build a sample repository on the surface of Mars, which the Mars Sample Return mission will be able to use in the not too distant future. Then the procedure was about to start, now the first sample was on the surface of the planet. And if you are interested in what it looks like, the attached photos remove all doubts. It’s nothing fancy, just a titanium tube lying on the surface. You might associate it with an explosive object (because it reminds me of a lightsaber), which has been talked about more and more in the media lately.

The Perseverance soil sample repository will only be used if the rover itself cannot make it to the Mars Sample Return mission landing to deliver another copy of the samples permanently stored on board.

All kidding aside, however, what the Perseverance rover left behind could in the future (and let’s live to see it in the form of this future) prove to be a mine of previously untapped knowledge about Mars for Earth scientists. Yes, there are meteorites on Earth that come from the Red Planet, but they are a testimony of its oldest history. The contents of samples taken by NASA’s rover also testify to its later stage of development, and can also be closely linked to a specific location on this planet.

One has already fallen, ten are left

What is the first sample dropped?

The sample, named Malay, taken a little less than a year ago, on January 31, 2022, in the Jezero crater area, which has been named South Seitah, contains fragments of igneous rocks. Such rocks were exposed at the bottom of the crater that Perseverance explored during the first part of the core phase of the Mars 2020 mission. Last spring, the rover reached the mouth of the delta, where there are many sedimentary rocks that may contain traces of organic life of interest to researchers.

Meanwhile, igneous rocks contain material that was formed by geological activity deep below the planet’s surface, as well as on the surface. The discovery of igneous rocks was a surprise at the time, as it was expected that the bottom of the crater, as well as the area along the rim, would be filled with sedimentary rocks.

South Seitah regionHere Perseverance found the material that filled the first sample thrown.

The surprise also turned out to be a perfect twist of fate, as the solidified magma is a great testimony of past events, which can therefore be well placed in time. And thus determine the age of such a structure as the Jezero crater in the form we are currently observing. Although we have estimates from orbit, as well as visual observations during missions, suggest that the crater formed about 3.9 billion years ago and the activity of the river system took place about 3.7 billion years ago, but only studies of the Malayan sample and others in ground laboratories will confirm these assumptions.

What was the procedure for dropping the sample?

It is not easy, as can be seen perfectly in the attached videos, where scientists learn this activity with the help of the Optimism rover. It’s a bit like throwing a knife or an axe. You have to learn to control your wrist properly and release the knife or ax at the right moment so that it hits the ground or wood well.

Start the video

In the case of Perseverance, the drop means dropping a sample from a height of 89 centimeters to Earth. If you find a tube in the house, for example with pills, drop it from about the height that you hold against the body of your hand. And how does it always fall the same way? You may have been lucky, but with the Perseverance mission you can’t just count on it, you have to be sure.

The sample had to fall and stop at an exact spot. She could not roll towards the wheels of a vehicle, for example, or to a place that would be difficult to identify later. And the loss of even a single sample in this way would be considered a failure by mission control.

The small distance between Mars and Earth at the transition from 2022 to 2023 favors fast communication with the rover on Mars and possible corrections of previously implemented procedures. A reply to a sent message can appear after less than 10 minutes.

The entire process of dropping the first sample onto the surface of Mars took almost an hour. Meanwhile, a mechanism inside the rover selected a sample from sample storage, placed it in the exhaust port, and released it from its holder when the time was right.

The first sample container on the surface of MarsImage captured by the WATSON camera as evidence of the successful drop of the first sample vessel

Each step of this procedure was monitored by the rover’s cameras and consulted with the Earth. The dropped sample was photographed by the WATSON camera at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. If it accidentally falls vertically like in the video below, you would have to give it a slight push to tip it over.

Start the video

All this shows how much is still ahead of us in the field of solar system research

I am an optimist and hope that one day we will at least be able to visit every interesting corner of the solar system, but for now all we are doing are humble beginnings. Even such a seemingly simple procedure as throwing samples is performed very slowly and carefully.

Optimists hoping for revolutionary achievements in human exploration of Mars can only hope that the pace of progress will increase. Because only then ambitious plans, including the one to land a man on the Red Planet before the middle of the 21st century, have a chance to come true.

Source: JPL, ESA, inf. own

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