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Perseverance to take a second stab at Martian rocks … but first it has to scratch’n’sniff

NASA’s Perseverance rover will make a second attempt at collecting a sample of Mars rock for eventual return to Earth – though it’s going to scratch its latest target first to make sure it’s worth bothering.

The 1,025-kg, nuclear-powered trundlebot may be the most advanced vehicle to explore Mars yet, but it proved no match for some parts of the Red Planet’s regolith. On its first sampling attempt, it bored a hole into a patch of ground in the Jezero crater, but no material was bottled up, leaving the boffins baffled.

An analysis showed that the machine’s software and hardware was operating flawlessly. There was nothing wrong with Perseverance, it’s just that the rock it drilled into disintegrated to dust and there was no solid core to collect. The mistake was in choosing to sample from material that was too crumbly.

To avoid the same error, NASA has directed the rover to another spot over 455 metres away: a ridge nicknamed Citadelle, the French word for castle. Scientists believe that the ridge is covered in a more solid layer of rock capable of withstanding wind erosion. Perseverance is to look for a particular rock nicknamed Rochette, and before it drills into the sample, it will extend its 2-metre-long arm to scrape its surface first.

It’ll then use its cameras to peer at the scratch, allowing scientists back at home to examine Rochette’s internal structure. If it looks interesting, and seems like it’ll hold its shape, next week NASA will order Perseverance to extract a small core that’s a bit thicker than a pencil in width.

The team will then make sure a sample has been obtained before it is stored in a tube that will remain on Mars for a vehicle to collect in an upcoming return mission.

“There are potentially older rocks in the ‘South Séítah’ region ahead of us, so having this younger sample can help us reconstruct the whole timeline of Jezero,” said Vivian Sun, a scientist working on the Mars 2020 mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The ultimate goal is to figure out whether Mars was once habitable back during a time when its environment was less dry and arid. NASA believes it may find evidence of ancient microbes deposited in layers in its rocks. ®


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