After safely arriving on Mars earlier this year, Perseverance is preparing to truly begin its science mission – collecting its first-ever sample of Martian rock.
During a press briefing on Wednesday, Perseverance project manager Jennifer Trosper said they hope to collect their first sample within the “first few weeks of August.”
“We are ready to sample. I am very excited about getting our first sample on Mars,” she says.
Scientists have wanted to get hold of Mars rocks ever since NASA’s Mariners provided the first close pictures half-century ago.
Over the next two years, Percy, as the rover is nicknamed, will use its 7-foot (2-meter) arm to drill down and collect rock samples containing possible signs of bygone microscopic life. Three to four dozen chalk-size samples will be sealed in tubes and set aside.
Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater, once home to a lakebed fed by a river, on February 18.
NASA kicked off the rover mission’s science phase on June 1, exploring a 1.5-square-mile (4-square-kilometer) patch of crater floor that may contain Jezero’s deepest and most ancient layers of exposed bedrock.
Scientists hope to answer one of the central questions of theology, philosophy, and space exploration.
“This really important step in meeting the mission’s goals of collecting a suite of samples that are worthy of return to Earth,” says project scientist Ken Farley.
While It took astronaut Neil Armstrong just 3 minutes and 35 seconds to collect the first Moon sample, NASA says Perseverance will require about 11 days to complete its first sampling.
It must receive its instructions from hundreds of millions of miles away.
“We want this sample to really kind of summarize and record the history of this entire unit as much as possible, we want it to be representative of this unit, explains science campaign co-lead Vivian Sun.
“And so, that means that we’re going to be looking for things like texture and chemistry and mineralogy and will want our ultimate sampling, our sample rock, to have kind of the typical texture, chemistry and mineralogy.”
Perseverance is currently about 3,000 feet south of its Jezero Crater landing site.
It’s been using autonomous navigation systems to roll across Martian terrain far faster than previous rovers.
“The rover is now able to straddle large rocks, something that no rover could do before, and all the complex onboard decision-making and path-planning is now happening as the rover is driving, which means that Perseverance is able to drive much faster than the other rovers,” explains enhanced navigation team lead Olivier Toupet.
NASA is teaming up with the European Space Agency to bring the rocks home.
The only way to confirm – or rule out – signs of past life is to analyze the samples in the world’s best labs. Instruments small enough to be sent to Mars don’t have the necessary precision.
The bold plan calls for a rover and return rocket to launch to Mars in 2026, and to retrieve Perseverance’s stash of samples.
NASA expects to bring back the rocks as early as 2031, several years before the first astronauts might arrive on the scene.
“We bring these samples back to Earth because we can make the measurements as accurately as humanly possible here on Earth,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief.