NASA’s Perseverance successfully completed its first sample collecting of rock cores last week after a bumpy start, and now it has sealed the precious material in a titanium container. If you're wondering why everyone is making such a big fuss about some Martian dirt, it's because this operation has historic importance. This will be the first-ever extraterrestrial sample to be retrieved from another planet.
The sealed container holds what will be the first sample brought to Earth from another planet that humanity went and collected ourselves, and didn't arrive as a meteorite. We have samples collected from the Moon, a few asteroids, and a comet, but not another planet. Studying materials from Mars in laboratories on Earth means we'll be able to study what the Red Planet was like billions of years ago like never before, and hopefully answer the question of whether life has ever existed on Mars.
“For all of NASA science, this is truly a historic moment,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement.
“Just as the Apollo Moon missions demonstrated the enduring scientific value of returning samples from other worlds for analysis here on our planet, we will be doing the same with the samples Perseverance collects as part of our Mars Sample Return program. Using the most sophisticated science instruments on Earth, we expect jaw-dropping discoveries across a broad set of science areas, including exploration into the question of whether life once existed on Mars.”
Perseverance has been equipped with 43 titanium sample tubes to fill with interesting rocks samples. However, the rover is only doing the collecting; a yet-to-be-named collaborative mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will be the one to collect the samples from Percy and send them back to Earth. The current launch target for this mission is 2026, with the samples returning in 2031.
“Getting the first sample under our belt is a huge milestone,” said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley of Caltech. “When we get these samples back on Earth, they are going to tell us a great deal about some of the earliest chapters in the evolution of Mars. But however geologically intriguing the contents of sample tube 266 will be, they won’t tell the complete story of this place. There is a lot of Jezero Crater left to explore, and we will continue our journey in the months and years ahead.”
Perseverance's current exploration will continue for several hundred sols – martian days – before returning to its landing site. From there, the rover will drive north first, and then to the west, where it will study Jezero Crater’s delta region. Billions of years ago, a river flowed into a lake in this crater forming a fan-shaped delta of sediments. Within these ancient sediments, there might be an indication of whether Mars was ever able to support life.