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The Perseverance rover is about to build the first repository for rock and soil samples on another planet. Establishing a cache site is a milestone in the complex preparation to bring the first rocks and soil from Mars back to Earth by 2033.
Within days, the rover will begin dropping some of its sample tubes, which contain Cretaceous-sized rock cores and sediment collected from the surface of Mars, into the depot in an area nicknamed the Three Forks in Jezero Crater.
The 10 tubes will fall approximately 2.9 feet (88.4 centimeters) from the rover’s belly and land at various locations on level, rock-free terrain in Three Forks over the next 30 days.
The rover collected pairs of samples from the rocks it drilled into and stowed a backup set as a precaution.
The Mars Sample Return program, conducted jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency, will be an attempt to land on Mars, retrieve the samples, and return them to Earth over the next decade.
“The samples for this depot — and the duplicates aboard Perseverance — are an incredible quantity that is representative of the area explored during the main mission,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, the lead scientist for the Mars Sample Return program, in an explanation.
“Not only do we have igneous and sedimentary rocks that show at least two and possibly four or even more distinct types of aqueous alteration, but also regolith, atmosphere and a witness tube,” Wadhwa said. also director of the Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration, citing examples of volcanic and sedimentary rocks, rocks altered by water, surface dust, and even the Martian atmosphere.
Perseverance collects rocks and dirt as it investigates the site of an ancient lake that existed billions of years ago. This material could contain clues to earlier microscopic organisms that would reveal whether life ever existed on Mars. Scientists will use some of the most advanced instruments to study these precious samples.
The original plan was to launch a fetch rover along with a sample retrieval lander in the mid-2020s. Once deployed on the surface of Mars, the fetch rover would have retrieved samples from where Perseverance had hidden them.
Now Perseverance will be the primary transport vehicle to transport samples to the lander. The rover’s most recent assessment indicates it should still be in prime condition to provide samples in 2030. Perseverance will return to the lander, and the lander’s robotic arm will transfer the samples.
The Sample Retrieval Lander will carry two helicopters for sample retrieval, similar to the Ingenuity helicopter currently on Mars – instead of a fetch rover.
Engineers are impressed with Ingenuity’s performance. The helicopter has survived more than a year beyond its expected lifespan and is on the verge of its 37th flight. If Perseverance is unable to return the samples to the lander, the small helicopters will fly away from the lander, use weapons to retrieve and return the samples.
“Until now, Mars missions only needed a good landing zone; we need 11,” said Richard Cook, Mars Sample Return Program Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.
“The first is for the Sample Retrieval Lander, but then we need 10 more nearby for our Sample Recovery Helicopters to take off and land and also drive.”
The Mars Sample Return team is also focusing on the pattern Perseverance will use to drop its samples.
“You can’t just throw them in a big pile because the recovery helicopters are designed to only interact with one tube at a time,” Cook said.
The rover drops the tubes in an intricate zigzag layout, leaving enough space around each drop zone to ensure the helicopters can pick them up when needed.
The Sample Retrieval Lander also carries the Mars Ascent Vehicle – the first rocket ever to be launched from the surface of Mars, with the samples safely stowed inside. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch from Mars in 2031. In the mid-2020s, a separate mission called the Earth Return Orbiter will launch from Earth to rendezvous with the Mars Ascent Vehicle.
On board the Earth Return Orbiter is a system that collects the sample container from the Mars Ascent Vehicle while both vehicles are in orbit around the red planet.
The Earth Return Orbiter will then return to our planet. Once the spacecraft is close to Earth, it will unleash a vehicle containing it the sample storage, and this spacecraft will land on earth in 2033.
Perseverance’s main mission ends on January 6th – nearly two years (and one Martian year) after landing on the red planet. But the rover’s journey isn’t over yet.
“We’ll still be working on delivering the sample repository when our expanded mission begins on (January 7), so that perspective doesn’t change,” Art Thompson, project manager of Perseverance at JPL, said in a statement. “However, once the table is set at Three Forks, we will head to the top of the delta. The science team wants to take a good look around up there.”
Perseverance will move into its new science operation called the Delta Top Campaign in the new year. The rover will climb the steep bank of an ancient river delta that emptied into the lake of Jezero Crater billions of years ago, and arrive at the delta’s upper surface in February.
Over the next eight months, Perseverance will search for boulders and additional material in the river may have borne from other parts of Mars and deposited in the delta.
“The Delta Top campaign is our opportunity to take a look at the geological process beyond the walls of Jezero Crater,” said Katie Stack Morgan, associate project scientist for Perseverance at JPL, in a statement.
“Billions of years ago, a raging river carried debris and boulders miles beyond the walls of Jezero. We will explore these ancient river deposits and collect samples from their well-travelled boulders and rocks.”