the perseverance rover It’s a rarity among spacecraft for the sole reason that it’s a sample return mission — which means persistence will dig up Martian rocks and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth.
Of course, the returning sample part of the task becomes difficult if one’s sample suddenly and mysteriously disappears.
This Mars mystery story began last week, when scientists took a big step in their historic persistence mission by trying to collect samples from the Red Planet and deposit them in one of the rover’s 43 collection tubes.
At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly. Perseverance selected a rock in the Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide crater and former lake that scientists believe is an ideal place to search for evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars. Then the rover dug a small hole the size of a finger.
But despite the obvious hole in the rock, a subsequent analysis revealed that no rock sample could be found in the tube.
«Although this isn’t the ‘hole in one’ we’ve been hoping for, there is always a risk of breaking new ground,» said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. In a press release. «I am confident we have the right team working on this, and we will persevere toward a solution to ensure future success.»
sample return missions Extremely rare because of their expense. In fact, there was no mission to return a sample from another planet. Perseverance will be the first, and NASA scientists say that if all goes well, we could return samples from Mars to Earth by 2031.
So, what happened to the missing sample? Engineers are still searching for an answer — but they have some clues.
Perseverance has a hollow drill bit and a percussion drill at the end of its seven-foot-long robotic arm, which is meant to extract samples. According to NASA, data from the operation indicates that the sample was processed as intended, which makes the missing sample even more confusing.
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«The sampling process is independent from start to finish,» said Jessica Samuels, Surface Mission Manager for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. «One of the steps that occurs after a probe is placed in the collection tube is to measure the volume of the sample. The probe has not encountered the expected resistance that would exist if the sample were inside the tube.»
In response, the Perseverance task assembles a response team to analyze the data in more detail. Part of this process will be the use of WATSON (Topographic Wide Angle Sensor for Operations and eNgineering), which is located at the end of the robotic arm, to better understand what happened.
said Jennifer Trosper, director of the Perseverance Project at JPL. «Over the next few days, the team will spend more time analyzing the data we have, as well as obtaining some additional diagnostic data to support understanding the root cause of the empty tube.»
Apparently, this isn’t the first time scientists have struggled to drill holes and collect samples from Mars. In 2008, the «sticky» and «icy» soil on Mars made it difficult for Mars Phoenix task to move a sample to one of its scientific instruments on board. Recently, the heat probe on the InSight lander has struggled to penetrate the surface of Mars as planned.
«I’ve been involved in every Mars rover mission since the beginning, and this planet always teaches us what we don’t know about it,» Trosper said. «One thing I’ve found, it’s not unusual for complications to occur during complex activities for the first time.»