Science

Look: NASA's Perseverance rover spits out stray rocks ahead of ambitious sample mission

Looks fun!

NASA

Perseverance is having a good time on Mars, new images show.

Last week, NASA released footage of its rover on the Red Planet ejecting a rock from its mechanisms. The images may seem like the machine is having some fun throwing rocks on its new home, but it actually forms part of NASA’s overall plan to help humans visit the planet themselves.

The images, taken from Perseverance’s 322nd day on Mars on January 15, show the rover ejecting a portion of cored-rock sample from its rotary percussive drill. The rock got into the mechanism while it was collecting a sample on December 29.

The rest of the sample will be returned to Earth for analysis in a future mission. It could help reveal more about Mars’ history, geology, and climate — data that could help NASA and others prepare to send humans to the surface.

The feat will make Perseverance the first mission to collect and cache a sample of Mars’ rock and regolith. It’s also only the sixth time a sample has come from a planet other than Earth.

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The team collected the rock sample from a rock dubbed “Issole” on December 29. During the transfer of the sample into the carousel that passes tubes to the rover’s processing hardware, a sensor spotted an anomaly.

Perseverance finds debris inside its carousel.NASA

On January 7, NASA used a tool to diagnose the anomaly. An image collected by WATSON, or the Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering, showed a small piece of debris left over from the sample collection.

Further analysis showed that samples fell out during the coring bit drop-off. It took around a week to properly diagnose the issue due to the data latency that restricts the sort of activities the team can perform.

Although NASA designed the carousel to function with debris, the team didn’t want to leave anything up to chance — it was hard enough getting the rover to Mars in the first place.

On January 17, the team moved the carousel around 75 degrees to dislodge the pebbles. Because NASA could not say for sure how much of the sample was left in the tube, the decision was made to return the entire sample back to Mars.

It oriented the drill and sample tube around nine degrees below horizontal, then shook it for 208 seconds to ensure it was completely clean.

Perseverance ejects rock.NASA

The team may consider collecting another sample from the rock another time.

Before and after photos showed the rocks back on their home.

The rocks before and after shaking.NASA

The sample will be collected using the Earth Return Orbiter in 2026 — a mission that will use the European Space Agency’s new Ariane 6 rocket to launch.

From there, NASA’s research could lay the groundwork for planned human missions to the planet — including a particularly bold plan from SpaceX, which aims to build a full-fledged city on the world by 2050.

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