Perseverance rover makes its first package delivery: a unique kind of Mars rock

The sample is currently in a titanium tube on Mars and is the first of what will become a sample depot of Martian rock.
A titanium tube placed on Mars by NASA's Perseverance rover
Once the Perseverance team confirmed the first sample tube was on the surface, they positioned the WATSON camera located at the end of the rover’s robotic arm to peer beneath the rover, checking to be sure that the tube hadn’t rolled into the path of the wheels. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Martian history was made yesterday when NASA’s Perseverance rover deposited its first rock sample on Mars. Throughout the next two months, the rover will leave 10 titanium tubes at a location called Three Forks. This is an early part of the Mars Sample Return campaign, where NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will collect and return the first samples of Martian rock and regolith, or broken rock and dust.

This historic first sample drop contained a chalk-size core of igneous rock that is informally named Malay. The sample was collected on January 31, 2022 in a region of Mars’ Jezero Crater called South Séítah. According to NASA, it took Perseverance’s complex Sampling and Caching System almost an hour to retrieve the metal tube from inside the rover’s belly, take one last look with its internal CacheCam, and then drop the sample about 3 feet onto a carefully selected patch of Martian ground.

[Related: For the first time, humans can hear a dust devil roar across Mars.]

Once NASA engineers confirmed Malay was on the ground, the team positioned a camera at the end of Perseverance’s seven-foot long robotic arm called WATSON. The engineers moved WATSON so that it could look beneath the rover and make sure the rover’s wheels didn’t run over the tube.

The team also wanted to make sure that the tube landed correctly and is standing on its end. The tube has a flat end piece called a glove to make it easier for future missions to scoop it up. If the tube is not placed correctly, the mission has a series of written commands for Perseverance to carefully knock the tube over with a part of its robotic arm.

Over the next few weeks, the team will have more chances to see whether the rover needs to use its special technique, as the rover deposits more samples at Three Forks.

“Seeing our first sample on the ground is a great capstone to our prime mission period, which ends on January 6,” said Rick Welch, Perseverance’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in a statement. “It’s a nice alignment that, just as we’re starting our cache, we’re also closing this first chapter of the mission.” JPL built Perseverance and is leading the mission.

Perseverance’s belly currently has 17 samples from the Red Planet, including one atmospheric sample. The Mars Sample Return campaign’s plan is for Perseverance to deliver samples to a future robotic lander. Then, the lander will use a robotic arm to place the samples inside a containment capsule that’s onboard a small rocket that will blast off to Mars orbit. Finally, another spacecraft will capture the sample container and return it back to Earth.

[Related: NASA’s Perseverance rover is on a hunt for microbes on Mars.]

The purpose of this sample depot is as a backup in case Perseverance can’t deliver its samples to a future lander. If that happens, a pair of Sample Recovery Helicopters will swoop in to get them.

One of the key objectives for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is studying astrobiology—including searching for signs of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet. Perseverance will look at Mars’ past climate, current geology, help pave the way for future human exploration, and will be the first mission to collect and store Martian rock and regolith.

Future missions in in cooperation with ESA will collect the sealed samples and bring them back to Earth for analysis.