NASA researchers were left scratching their heads when the tube they thought contained the first-ever rock sample from Mars was actually empty. That's right - back in August, the martian material went missing. But, of course, scientists did not give up. Here are all of the details on the latest retrieval.
The Perseverance rover landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, and has since been hard at work exploring the planet. And there's been some great progress from the wanderer ever since the rock-related update from about a month ago. Perseverance has rounded up not one, but two rock samples from Mars. The rover drilled twice into a rock called Rochette. Now, the stone is being stored in airtight tubes inside the robot's body.
And snagging two bits from the same rock is no coincidence. The process is "a little bit of an insurance policy," explained Katie Morgan, the deputy project scientist of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. Collecting samples in pairs allows for Perseverance to leave the two sets of materials in different places, increasing the odds that a future explorer will successfully retrieve at least one of them to bring back to Earth.
Luckily for us, we've already learned a bit about the rocks from Perseverance's observations. The rover's analysis of the samples' texture and chemistry implies that it contained basalt and might have been part of an ancient lava flow. The rock has salt minerals, as well, which were likely created from interactions with water.
"It really feels like this rich treasure trove of information for when we get this sample back," Morgan said. So what will happen once the rock(s) are back Earth-side? Researchers will look inside the rocks' salts for fluid bubbles that could be trapped in there. "That would give us a glimpse of Jezero crater at the time when it was wet and was able to sustain ancient Martian life," scientist Yulia Goreva explained.
"These represent the beginning of Mars sample return," Arizona State University's Meenakshi Wadhwa excitedly declared. "I've dreamed of having samples back from Mars to analyze in my lab since I was a graduate student. We've talked about Mars sample return for decades. Now it's starting to actually feel real." But don't hold your breath: according to NASA, these samples will make their Earth debut in 2031 at the earliest.