NASA’s Perseverance rover captured its first sampling of rocky Mars material last week after its first attempt in August mysteriously turned up empty. The new rock sample, about the size of a small cigar, checks off a crucial first step in a broader decade-long effort to bring humanity’s first Martian samples back to Earth in pristine condition.
The rover’s successful sample grab happened last Wednesday at 5:36PM ET, digging into a rock scientists nicknamed “Rochette.” Using a hollow, tube-like drill bit that traps rocky material inside, Perseverance drilled a hole a few inches deep using a rotary-percussive drill installed at the end of its seven-foot sampling arm. A twisting mechanism inside the drill bit snapped the rock core off of Rochette and kept it snug inside a sample tube. To confirm it was safe inside, Perseverance maneuvered the five-jointed sampling arm to bring the drill bit in front of the rover’s Mastcam-Z camera — one of its primary eyes.
Perseverance, a car-sized science lab on wheels, landed at Mars’ Jezero Crater in February with a core mission to look for ancient signs of microbial life and collect dozens of samples for a future Mars robot to retrieve and send back home.
After the rover’s drill bit captured the rock and scientists visually confirmed a successful sampling, the sampling hand handed the rock tube off to another mechanism inside Perseverance’s main body for processing. Another camera, the Sample Caching System Camera, snaps photos of the rock samples before it gets plugged into an air-tight container.
The air-tight container will be stored in a mini garage in the rover’s underbelly until it’s time for Perseverance to plop the sealed tube back on the surface for collection.
Where Perseverance drops the rock samples is yet to be determined. Someday, a future NASA robot will collect the tubes from their resting places on the surface and launch them into Mars’ orbit, where another spacecraft built by the European Space Agency will catch and carry them the rest of the way home for arrival sometime in the 2030s.