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NASA’s Perseverance rover completes ‘sample depot’ on Mars: Here’s how they will reach Earth

The Indian Express logo The Indian Express 31-01-2023 Science Desk
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NASA announced on Wednesday that its Perseverance Rover, nicknamed Percy, has completed the first “sample depot on another world” by dropping the tenth and final sample tube. The tube will be part of a depot that will be considered for the return to Earth as part of the Mars Sample Return Campaign.

The Perseverance Rover completed the sample depot less than six weeks since it began by dropping the first sample on December 21. The titanium tube containing tubes of Martian rock and regolith (soil) are deposited on the surface of the planet in a zigzag pattern, with each between five and 15 metres away from the other. The depot is on flat ground near a fan-shaped ancient river delta and the Perseverance team has precisely mapped the location of each tube to ensure that they can be found even if they get covered by dust.

What is the Perseverance Mars Rover?

NASA’s Perseverance is a Mars rover that is about 3 metres long, 2.7 metres wide, and 2.2 metres tall. It is about the size of a car, but weighs only about 1,025 kilograms with all instruments on board. Since it has to operate independently on the surface of a plant that is millions of kilometres away, it has parts that are analogous - similar to those found in animals that help them adapt and survive.

For example, its body is a strong structure that protects its “vulnerable insides” and its computers are the brain that processes all the data. Its eyes and ears are formed by cameras and other instruments that give it information about its environment. Its “legs” are the wheels that allow it to move around.

When did the Perseverance rover launch?

Perseverance on an Atlas V-541 rocket from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 30, 2020. It landed on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021 along with the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.

What is NASA’s Perseverance rover looking for?

To put it simply, Perseverance is looking for signs of life on the red planet. Previous missions run by the American space agency have discovered evidence that Mars once had running water before it turned into a frozen desert. Mars had warmer surface environments that could have supported microbial life in its earlier history.

Perseverance aims to take the next logical step and find out one of the most important questions in the field of astrobiology—whether there are signs of past microbial life on Mars. In fact, even the location where it landed, the Jezero Crater, has a high potential for hosting biosignatures of past microbial life.

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The crater is a 45-kilometre-wide basin located in the northern hemisphere of Mars. According to NASA, a river flowed into a body of water there around 3.5 billion years ago. The space agency believes that the ancient river delta could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other signs of microbial life.

How will Perseverance samples be returned?

The Perseverance rover already has on board a host of scientific instruments that will help researchers study the red planet in greater detail than ever before. This includes the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) instrument that can detect organic matter and minerals, and PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry), which can map the chemical composition of rocks and sediments.

But, no matter how good those instruments are, the capability to extensively and comprehensively study the matter collected on Mars only exists in advanced laboratories here on Earth. Therefore, it is imperative that some of the samples collected by the rover be returned to Earth. But how will we do that?

This is where the Mars Sample Return Program comes in. This partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will not only be the first to return samples from another planet, but it will also be the first mission to launch from the surface of another planet.

The campaign begins with a Sample Retrieval Lander that would launch to the red planet in 2023, carrying a NASA-led Mars rocket and a pair of small Mars helicopters, kind of like Ingenuity. It would touch down near Perseverance’s landing location in the Jezero Crater. After it lands, the Perseverance rover would move close to the lander where a robotic arm would transfer the samples from Percy to the lander’s rocket.

The samples deposited by Perseverance on the Martian surface will act as a backup for the samples that are contained within the rover itself. The pair of helicopters on the retrieval lander will scout for the samples left by Perseverance, and they will collect them and bring them back to the lander, where they will be transferred onto the rockets.

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