Perseverance is about to collect the first soil sample from Mars

Perseverance is about to collect the first soil sample from Mars

The NASA rover will collect a small sample of the rocks of Mars to provide scientists with material with which to investigate the red planet's past

An image obtained by Perserverance on 11 July 2021 with the Watson camera. You see a rock called Foux. The figure is actually a "square" of the rock, measuring 3.5 × 2.6 cm (photo: Nasa / Jpl-Caltech / Msss) It has been on Mars since February 18, 2021 and is now about to start collecting a sample of the underground of the red planet to be brought back to Earth. We are talking about the Perseverance rover, the successor of Curiosity, which left at the end of last July with NASA's Mars 2020 mission and landed on the red planet last February. The announcement has just arrived from NASA. Almost everything is ready to kick off the new operation, we are at the starting blocks. Perseverance will dig into the soil under the Jezero crater, chosen by NASA among 60 candidate sites, almost unique for its characteristics. If the sampling activity follows the expected timing, the collection could be completed in the first days of August 2021.

Finding the right spot

After five months of stay on Mars and of external explorations the Perseverance rover is ready to dive into Jezero, a 45-kilometer-diameter crater that may have hosted a river delta in the past. Precisely for this reason, NASA considers it an ideal area to look for potential traces of organic molecules and microbial life. The main objectives of Perseverance are to hunt for these possible clues, study the geology of Mars and collect samples of rocks and regolith, the set of dust and irregular fragments in the outermost layer of the surface.

The rover has already reached the specific site of the crater, one kilometer south of the landing site, where it will capture materials and drill the surface. Scientists believe this region is the oldest in the crater. Here there are flat, white rocks covered with dust and pebbles, which could also provide information on the possible presence of water, of a lake hosted more than 3 billion years ago.

From the choice of point when sampling

Perseverance will unleash all its tools in a sampling process that has been extensively researched and tested. In this activity, the rover will adjust and extend its articulated robotic arm by 2 meters, so that it covers the area where the samples will take place. Then it will take images of the soil that will be carefully evaluated by NASA to decide the precise point in which to take the material. Another separate position will also be chosen for comparison and to obtain further data. After the preparation operations and the careful selection of the places to be sampled, the sampling activity will last only one Martian solar day - called by the scientists sol - which lasts little more than one Earth day (about 24 hours and 39 minutes).

After drilling the rock, the rover will blow compressed gas in order to eliminate dust and other material that cover it and highlight its structure and mineralogical characteristics. The extracted material will be about the size of a chalk: the rotary hammer drill will reach a depth of a few centimeters and will pick up a small cylinder 6 centimeters high and 1.3 centimeters in diameter. The sample will be placed in an ultra-clean metal tube then stored in the "belly" of the rover and is only one of the possible 38 samples to be taken, of which 30 will be returned to Earth.

Small steps towards great discoveries

The studies will take time and most likely this first sampling will not provide a definitive answer on the possible presence of life on Mars, as the scientists point out. However, accumulating evidence will also be important to try to answer important questions about changes in the red planet and about astrobiology, which studies the origin and evolution of life in the Universe. "We believe that [the rocks at this point] have been around since the formation of the Jezero crater - points out Ken Farley of Caltech, scientist on the Perseverance team - and are incredibly valuable in filling the gaps in our geological understanding of this region. whose knowledge would be absolutely necessary if we discovered that once there was life on Mars ”. In short, we do not limit the search.

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