Looking for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars, NASA's Perseverance rover is once again preparing to collect the first of many rock core samples that will be brought back to Earth for further study.
This week, a tool on the rover's two-meter robotic arm will grind the surface of the Rochette rock, allowing scientists to look inside and determine whether to grab a sample with the rover's core chisel. A sample slightly thicker than a pencil will be sealed in one of the 42 remaining titanium tubes aboard the rover.
If the team decides to get a core from this rock, the sampling process will begin next week.
The mission attempted to capture its first sample of the crater floor on August 6 from rock that ended up being too crumbly, crumbling into powder and fragments of material too small to hold in a sample tube.
Since then, Perseverance has moved 1,493 feet (455 meters) to the ridge of the Citadel (French for "castle"). The ridge is covered with a layer of rock that resists wind erosion, indicating that it is more likely to be retained while drilling.
“There are potentially older rocks ahead in the South S ?? tah region, so having a younger specimen could help reconstruct the entire Jezero timeline,” said Vivian Sun of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
The team added a step to the sampling process for the upcoming attempt: after using the Mastcam-Z camera system to peer inside the sampling tube, the rover will pause the sampling sequence so the team can view the image so the team can review the image to make sure there is core. Once the sample is confirmed, they will instruct Perseverance to seal the vial.
Although the crushed rock was not captured during the initial sampling, the first sample tube still contains a sample of the Martian atmosphere that the mission originally planned to obtain later.
“By returning samples to Earth, we hope to answer a number of scientific questions, including the composition of the atmosphere on Mars,” said Ken Farley, a Perseverance Project Scientist at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "This is why we are interested in atmospheric samples along with rock samples."
At the top of the Citadel, Perseverance will use its RIMFAX subsurface radar to monitor the rock layers below it. The top of the ridge will also provide Mastcam-Z with an excellent vantage point to find other potential stone targets in the area.
A key goal of the Perseverance mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet's geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and become the first mission to collect and store Martian rocks and regolith.
Subsequent NASA missions, in collaboration with ESA (European Space Agency), will send a spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.