NASA’s Perseverance has dropped the first of the canisters containing the backup samples collected by the rover during the first part of its mission. The canisters will be delivered to Earth in 2033 by the Mars Sample Return mission. These samples will be analyzed in ways that our excellent robotic explorers simply can’t do.
Perseverance will deliver some of the canisters directly to the lander, but as an insurance policy, there are duplicates that are being dropped on Mars in very specific locations. They will be collected by two brand-new Martian helicopters similar in design and scope to Ingenuity, which was first tested during this mission – it exceeded expectations by so much that it became a fully-fledged flying companion for Perseverance.
The flying vehicles can only pick up one sample at a time, so the samples have to be spaced out on a pretty flat landing site with no rocks. The rover will continue dropping several more of the 17 samples currently collected over the next few weeks. The first sample was no bigger than a blackboard chalk, and was taken from an igneous rock informally named “Malay” on January 31, 2022, in a region of Mars’ Jezero Crater called “South Séítah.”
The samples simply drop out of the belly of Perseverance, and then the robotic arm is used to check that the container doesn’t roll into the path of the wheels or land pointing upwards, instead of being flat on the ground. The first drop went perfectly without the need for further intervention.
“Seeing our first sample on the ground is a great capstone to our prime mission period, which ends on Jan. 6,” Rick Welch, Perseverance’s deputy project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “It’s a nice alignment that, just as we’re starting our cache, we’re also closing this first chapter of the mission.”
Perseverance's primary mission ends on January 6, after a full Martian year (687 days) on the Red Planet.