Mars rover drops the first monster on Mars (and now waits for someone or something to pick it up)
It took Perseverance about an hour to extract the precious tube from its abdomen and take one last look at it before the rover gently dropped it to the ground.
NASA’s Perseverance rover has been searching Mars for signs of ancient microbial life for some time now. During its search, the Martian rover collects various samples which it stores in sealed titanium tubes. Eventually, the researchers hope to fill all the sample tubes they brought with them – no less than 42 in total – with interesting samples from Mars. The plan is for the rover to eventually drop some of the collected sample tubes onto the surface. And just now, Perseverance deposited the first copy in a safe place.
Meanwhile, the Mars rover has taken samples from several locations in Jezero Crater, hoping they will reveal more about Mars’ past. Most of these samples are Martian rocks and one is an atmospheric sample. Incidentally, Perseverance has taken duplicate samples of every rock it’s looked at so far, just to be on the safe side. And until now, Perseverance carried all of this in its “belly”.
The mission team has now decided it is time to extract the first sample from the belly and leave it on the ground. This is done with a view to the future Mars Sample Returnmission (see box).
The future Mars Sample Return mission – which will probably not be launched before 2028 – promises to be a historic, but complicated undertaking. During the mission, the precious samples collected by Perseverance will be recovered and brought back to Earth. First, Perseverance will take the precious samples to a future lander. The lander will in turn, using a robotic arm, place the samples in a capsule on board a small rocket. In this way, the monsters are then launched and delivered to an orbiter, which must ultimately deliver them to Earth safe and sound. The monsters are expected to arrive on Earth around 2033. They can then be studied using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to be transported to Mars. Not only are scientists hoping to learn more about the early evolution of our nearest neighbor, but the samples may also reveal whether Mars was once habitable and supported life.
Watch key moments from NASA and ESA’s Mars Sample Return mission in this short animation. Video: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/MSFC
The first sample Perseverance has now extracted from his abdomen is the core of a pencil-sized piece of igneous rock, which has been dubbed “Malay”. The rover collected this sample on January 31, 2022, in an area of Jezero Crater called South Seitah.
Incidentally, the process took some time. It took Perseverance nearly an hour to remove the airtight titanium tube in question from its abdomen and take one last look at it before the rover gently dropped it to the ground. And even then, the job was not done. Once the mission team was able to confirm that the tube was on the ground, the WATSON camera was called in to ensure that the tube had not rolled and landed in front of Perseverance’s wheels. But NASA comes with good news. Because everything went well! The first tube, filled with important Mars rocks, is duly laid out on the red sand ready to be picked up.
Malay is the first of a total of ten hits that will be dropped by Perseverance. Over the next two months, Perseverance will deposit the remainder at roughly the same location, which has been dubbed “Three Forks.” The goal is to build here a real “depot of monsters”, the first of humanity on another planet. Filing marks historic first step into the future Mars Sample Return-assignment.
To pick up
Whether these neatly dropped tubes are picked up by someone or something remains the question. In effect, the repository serves as a backup plan. As mentioned, Perseverance takes a double sample of each rock. The idea is that the thief, when next Mars Sample Returnmission, will take the monsters it carries in its belly to a lander before launching them towards the orbiter. However, if it turns out that Perseverance, for whatever reason, fails to take out the monsters themselves, helicopters will enter the breach and personally pick up any reserve monsters left behind at Three Forks.
In short, the hope is that the monsters of Three Forks will never be recovered. Still, it’s a good idea that if something happens to the monsters Perseverance carries in its belly, the entire mission won’t fall apart completely. Should the worst happen, there are still spare samples strewn across the floor. “Now being able to drop the first sample on the ground is a great conclusion to our main mission period, which ends on January 6,” said team member Rick Welch. “We can now close the first chapter of the mission.”
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