NASA’s Perseverance rover has dropped final samples of Martian dust.

NASA’s Perseverance rover dropped the last of 10 sample tubes onto the surface of Mars, completing humanity’s “other world’s first sample repository.” The rover began depositing titanium tubes containing rock and dust samples six weeks ago as part of its Mars Sample Return mission, which will collect Martian material and deliver it to Earth for further study.

Perseverance landed on Mars in February 2021, inside a 28-mile-wide bowl known as Jezero Crater, on a key mission to search for signs of ancient microbial life and collect samples of the Martian environment. Scientists believe that billions of years ago there might have been a river in Jezero crater that flowed into a vast lake, providing the necessary environment to support microbial life.

The rover is currently carrying 17 primary samples, which the space agency hopes will be delivered to the sample return lander so they can be delivered back to Earth. Located in the Three Forks region of Jezero Crater ⁠, the newly completed sample depot ⁠ serves as a backup cache in case Perseverance is unable to provide on-board samples. The location of each tube has been carefully mapped so that even when covered in dust, two Ingenuity-like helicopters can find and collect it.

Two NASA engineers observe sample tubes stacking up while testing the Perseverance rover.

Perseverance is programmed (as above) to carefully knock over any tube that falls vertically from the end so that it can be picked up more easily in future missions.
Image: NASA

The tables are set on Three Forks, but Perseverance is still in good shape and will now go on an extended mission exploring the nearby Delta Top region. The Delta Top campaign is expected to last about eight months and will examine rocks and sediments that appear to have been carried into Jezero Crater by an ancient river.

A map showing the location of each tube within the Mars sample return mission's sample depot.

This map shows where the Perseverance probe dropped each of the 10 samples in the Three Forks area of ​​Jezero Crater.
Image: NASA

The focus of the main mission now shifts to the future retrieval of Mars samples. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin was commissioned last year to build the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) needed to take off from the surface of Mars. If successful, it will be the first rocket launched from another planet, and the collected samples will be transported to a spacecraft under construction by the European Space Agency, which will later deliver its valuable cargo into the hands of passionate scientists back on Earth.

NASA currently estimates that the sample recovery lander will land as early as 2028, and the collected samples won’t arrive on Earth until at least 2033.

That said, it’s much easier said than done. The Mars sample return mission represents over a decade of work and requires a number of incredibly complex steps to succeed, some of which have never been attempted before, such as landing a rocket on Mars where it can take off again. is. But if the team behind the mission can successfully carry out this staggering effort, we will be closer than ever to knowing if life ever existed beyond Earth.

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