Science

NASA’s Perseverance rover collects first dirt samples

NASA’s most advanced geologist robot to date has collected the first samples of rock debris and dust from the surface of the Red Planet.

The Perseverance rover has drilled two samples of what scientists call regolith as it continues its mission to study geological processes and find tell-tale evidence that life once existed on Mars. The NASA-operated rover collected regolith samples Dec. 2 and Tuesday (December 6), adding them to its collection of 15 rock cores recovered from Jezero Crater (plus one atmosphere sample) since the spacecraft landed in February 2021.

The two new specimens differ from the existing collection of Perserverance rocks, which were drilled from boulders; the regolith samples come from a mound of sand and windblown dust that resembles a dune here on Earth, albeit smaller.

On the subject: 12 amazing photos of the first year of the Perseverance rover on Mars

Although most of the samples that Perseverance collects during its mission are rock cores that may contain telltale signs of life, scientists have determined that such regolith samples may be the key to understanding the geological processes that formed Mars.

In addition, regolith samples could help scientists plan for future space missions and mitigate problems that astronauts may end up with on the Martian surface.

This is because regolith can affect a wide variety of equipment, from solar panels that harvest energy to spacesuits worn by astronauts. Not only can fine rock powder and dust jam sensitive parts and even slow down rovers on the surface, but larger, sharper rocks within the regolith could put astronauts at risk by punching holes in spacesuits.

“If we have a more permanent presence on Mars, we need to know how the dust and regolith will interact with our spacecraft and habitat,” Erin Gibbons, a doctoral student at McGill University in Canada and a member of the Perseverance team, said in a statement. . “Some of these dust particles can be as small as cigarette smoke and can get into an astronaut’s breathing apparatus. We need a more complete picture of what materials could be harmful to our researchers, whether they be humans or robots.”

However, it is also possible that Martian regolith may actually be an important resource for crewed space missions to Mars aiming for longer stays and resilience in space, as the thin material could be packaged against habitat to help protect humans from harsh solar radiation. that flows down. to the surface of Mars, which is not protected by a magnetic field, like the Earth.

A regolith sample collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover on Dec. 2 in a storage tube. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

However, before anyone gets too excited about this approach, scientists need to know if the Martian regolith contains perchlorate, a toxic chemical that can pose a health hazard to astronauts if swallowed or inhaled in large amounts.

Hence the interest in Martian regolith and efforts to include the material in the collection that Perseverance is assembling for a proposed Martian sample return mission being developed by NASA and the European Space Agency to bring the rover collection to Earth. Here, scientists could study regolith in more detail in laboratories with more sensitive and powerful equipment than the chemical analysis instruments that robots can deliver to the Red Planet.

Perseverance collected regolith samples with a drill mounted on the end of a robotic arm, as is done for rock cores, but with a different drill than the one used for previous samples.

The regolith drill resembles a spike with small holes at one end, allowing the drill to pick up loose material.

This drill bit was designed and tested using simulated Martian regolith developed by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. This artificial Martian material is made up of volcanic rock that has been ground into particles of various sizes, from large coarse pebbles to fine dust, and was inspired by images of real Martian regolith and data collected from previous missions to Mars.

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