NASA engineers and scientists are trying to figure out why the Mars rover Perseverance could not collect any material during its first sample attempt. Perseverance dug a sample from the rock on the Jezero Crater’s floor. Still, the sample did not reach a titanium sampling tube which would preserve the material for future return to Earth, NASA stated in a statement late Aug. 6.
According to Jessica Samuels, the automated sample collecting method includes inserting a probe into a sample tube to determine the volume of the sample it holds. Jessica works as a surface mission manager for the Perseverance at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In a NASA statement, she said, “The probe did not face the predicted resistance that would be present if there were a sample in the tube.” It’s unknown why the sample didn’t reach it into the tube, but project officials feel it’s more likely that the rock’s unexpected qualities prevented it from entering a tube than a flaw in the sampling equipment.
In a statement, Jennifer Trosper, who serves as the project manager for the Perseverance at JPL, said, “Over the next few days, the team will spend more time studying the data we have, as well as gathering some more diagnostic data to support identifying the root cause for the empty tube.” Imaging the drill hole using a camera on the rover’s robotic arm will be part of that job.
The sampling system has passed all previous testing, both on Earth before deployment and on Mars since its arrival six months ago. Last month, a “witness tube,” a sampling tube that does not have any material to measure contamination, was processed. “The excellent news is that everything went smoothly, and we are prepared to sample,” Trosper stated during a mission briefing on July 21.
A malfunction with the sampling equipment, in the worst-case scenario, would throw NASA’s long-term Mars mission agenda into disarray. Perseverance is the first of the European Space Agency and NASA’s three missions to collect and return samples from Mars to Earth. A NASA-led lander project will collect Perseverance’s samples and place them in a container that will be launched into Martian orbit. That container will be picked up by an ESA-led orbiter and returned to Earth. Those two subsequent missions, which are still in the early stages of planning, are scheduled to launch in 2026 and return samples to Earth in 2031.
NASA noted that previous Mars missions had difficulty drilling or obtaining Martian minerals. This includes everything from “sticky” soil, which made it impossible for the Phoenix lander to scoop stuff into its sensors in 2008 to the InSight mission’s heat flow probe, or even mole, failing to bore into the Martian surface.