After about five months settling into its new home on the Red Planet, NASA's Perseverance rover is about to collect its first-ever sample of Martian rock in one of the most intricate long-distance science projects ever conducted, according to a NASA statement.
Over the next two weeks, Perseverance, or Percy as it’s sometimes called — a rhinoceros-size rover that landed on Mars on Feb. 18 — is expected to locate a pair of ancient, identical rocks on the dusty floor of Jezero Crater, then perform in-situ experiments on one of them before collecting a core sample of the other. This second sample will be stored aboard Perseverance in a hermetically sealed container until future missions can return the Martian rock safely to Earth, NASA said.
The rocks near Perseverance's current position — an area known as the Cratered Floor Fractured Rough — are thought to contain some of the deepest and most ancient layers of exposed bedrock in Jezero Crater. NASA's upcoming study of the region's rocks could uncover valuable clues about the crater's ancient geologic past, the researchers said.
"When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the moon," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, said in the statement. "I have every expectation that Perseverance's first sample from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars."
The upcoming sampling project will take about 11 days to complete, NASA said, as Perseverance will receive all of its instructions remotely from millions of miles away. After the researchers locate a pair of rocks that appear to be "geological twins," they will kick off a two-part sampling process that begins with Perseverance doing some light cleaning.
Using Percy's Sampling and Catching System, the rover will scrape the exterior of one rock sample, removing the top layers of rock and dust until the inner, unweathered surface becomes visible. Next, Percy will blow the rock clean using a gas-based dust removal tool, then study the sample with a suite of cameras and sensors mounted on the rover. Analyzing both the rock's surface and the dust plumes that blow off of it during the scraping and cleaning process, the rover will compile a clear picture of the rock's mineral and chemical properties, the researchers said.
After resting and recharging for one Martian day, Perseverance will then start the second phase of its sample collection by drilling into the first rock's "twin." Percy will fill a small test tube with a core sample from the second rock, measuring about the size of a piece of chalk, the researchers said. After measuring and photographing the sample, Percy will stash the rock core in a sealed container for years to come.
For now, that's where the plan ends — but NASA researchers are currently working with their counterparts at the European Space Agency to develop future missions that will send spacecraft to Mars and back to collect these precious samples. On Earth, researchers can analyze the samples with much larger, more sensitive tools than could possibly fit on the rover, NASA said, bringing scientists one giant leap closer to unlocking the Red Planet's mysteries.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.