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Mars rock sample drilled by the Perseverance rover mysteriously vanished

Perseverance looks down at the hole it drilled for the first sample, August 6, 2021. NASAJPL-Caltech

What happened to NASA’s Mars rock sample excavated by the Perseverance rover just 4 days ago? After the initial attempt to gather a rock sample, the rover’s data transmitted back to Earth indicates it completed the required procedures precisely as intended. But the tube remains empty.

Perseverance’s primary mission on Mars is to explore a region called Jezero Crater and collect rock samples; the tube that came up empty is one of 43 carried by the rover for this purpose. NASA’s long-term goal is to send another mission to Mars in about a decade to gather and return the samples collected by Perseverance. Then, future scientists can explore if microbial life existed in the basin’s former lake.

The hole Perseverance drilled into a Mars rock to take its first sample, photographed August 7, 2021. NASAJPL-Caltech

Perseverance was attempting to sample a type of rock that is typical of the region it has been traveling through. The bottom of Jezero Crater is covered in what NASA refers to as “paver stones.” These porous rocks may be sedimentary (created by river and lake activity) or volcanic. Getting a sample will assist scientists in determining the sort of rocks that line the crater’s bottom, thereby improving their understanding of the area’s past.

Perseverance began its sample collection attempt by using an abrasion tool to remove dust and surface coatings from the granite. The rover then extended its seven-foot-long arm, which is equipped with a sample-collection gear. A percussive drill is used to drive a hollow coring bit into the rock with this equipment.

The empty inside of Perseverance’s first sample-collection tube, August 6, 2021. NASAJPL-Caltech

Some Mars missions have met unforeseen difficulties due to rock and soil. NASA was recently forced to abandon the “mole” on its InSight lander, a probing probe designed to dig into the Martian crust and detect its temperature. The mole found itself bouncing in place on a hard soil layer called “duracrust.”

“At this point, we believe the empty tube is more likely the result of the rock target not reacting as predicted during coring, rather than a hardware fault with the Sampling and Caching System,” Jennifer Trosper, Perseverance’s project manager, said in a statement. “Over the next few days, the team will spend additional time analyzing the data we currently have and also acquiring some additional diagnostic data to aid in understanding the root cause of the empty tube.”

The mission’s controllers will attempt to organize another sampling attempt.

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