Over the last few weeks, NASA’s Perseverance has been working hard to collect its first of many samples that will one day be sent back to Earth where they can be analyzed in more detail than what the rover can do on the Red Planet. These little bits of Martian rocks might finally answer the question if there was ever life on Mars.
On August 6, Perseverance drilled into an intriguing rock from which a sample was extracted into the collecting tube. All went as planned, it appeared successful and the container was processed as intended. At least data from that part of the mission was all fine. But it seems no sample was collected. Data sent back to Earth from the collecting tube indicates no rock sample was gathered.
Perseverance is equipped with 43 titanium sampling tubes that can be used to collect rocks and regolith, the loose soil on the surface of Mars. The rover’s Sampling and Caching System is made of a robotic arm 2 meters (7 feet) in length that extracts the sample and seals them into the containers.
“The sampling process is autonomous from beginning to end,” Jessica Samuels, the surface mission manager for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement. “One of the steps that occurs after placing a probe into the collection tube is to measure the volume of the sample. The probe did not encounter the expected resistance that would be there if a sample were inside the tube.”
The Perseverance team will now use the WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and eNgineering) imager to look into the borehole and work out what happened.
The leading hypothesis suggests that the fault is not in the system but in the rock. It wouldn’t be the first time that rocks and soil on Mars have defied expectations. The ultimately unsuccessful deployment of the embattled Martian “Mole” on NASA’s InSight Mars lander is a recent example of that.
“The initial thinking is that the empty tube is more likely a result of the rock target not reacting the way we expected during coring, and less likely a hardware issue with the Sampling and Caching System,” said Jennifer Trosper, project manager for Perseverance at JPL. “Over the next few days, the team will be spending more time analyzing the data we have, and also acquiring some additional diagnostic data to support understanding the root cause for the empty tube.”
Setbacks such as this are common when attempting things for the first time, especially when they are done autonomously by a robot on a different world.
“While this is not the ‘hole-in-one' we hoped for, there is always risk with breaking new ground,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “I’m confident we have the right team working this, and we will persevere toward a solution to ensure future success.”