Science

Mars rover is yet to find ‘perfect’ rock sample almost two months into its search for past life

NASA‘s Perseverance rover has been aptly named because — nearly two months after beginning its search into past life on Mars — it has still yet to find any viable samples.

The car-sized robot began its mission to find ancient biomarkers in the Martian clay on April 22, which could indicate if alien life ever existed on the Red Planet. 

It has been roaming around an ancient delta to look for sampling sites that might contain ancient microbes and organics. 

The rover then drills down to extract a specimen that it plans to leave at the base of the delta to be retrieved in future missions.

However, NASA has since revealed that, so far, no samples have been successfully collected.

The fragile clay materials the rover targets have been known to fracture, crack and crumble during the abrasion and coring process.

Other rocks have tricky shapes and angles that make drilling difficult or impossible, NASA has admitted.

Nearly two months after beginning its search into past life on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover has still yet to collect any viable rock samples. The fragile clay materials the rover targets have been known to fracture, crack and crumble during the abrasion and coring process

Some target rocks have tricky shapes and angles that make drilling difficult or impossible

Some target rocks have tricky shapes and angles that make drilling difficult or impossible

An image of the Perseverance rover sizing up Betty's Rock on Sol 477. The layered rock likely originated from an outcrop above, but its rough surface and sharp angles has so far prevented Perseverance from collecting a sample

An image of the Perseverance rover sizing up Betty’s Rock on Sol 477. The layered rock likely originated from an outcrop above, but its rough surface and sharp angles has so far prevented Perseverance from collecting a sample

PERSEVERANCE ROVER COMES WITH 23 CAMERAS 

There are 23 cameras mounted to the Perseverance rover including:

Nine engineering cameras, seven science cameras and seven for entry, descent and landing. 

The engineering cameras give detailed information in colour about the terrain the rover has to cross.

They measure the ground for safe driving, check out the status of hardware and support sample gathering.

There are Hazcams for hazard detection and Navcams for navigation.

Science cameras record in more detail and can even capture 3D images.

The Mastcam-Z on a 2 metre arm has a zoom feature for focusing on distant objects and can film video.

The Supercam fires a laser at mineral targets beyond the reach of the rovers arm to analysed the chemical composition of the rock. 

The Twitter account for the Perseverance rover tweeted: ‘The rocks here at the ancient river delta are amazing, but so far none has been perfect for #SamplingMars  

‘Some too fragile, some too jagged, but I’m sure I’ll find the right one soon – I’m not called Perseverance for nothing.’ 

Scientists know from studying deltas on Earth that fine-grained clay-rich rocks in these environments are good at preserving ancient biomarkers.

Biomarkers, or ‘molecular fossils,’ are complex organic molecules created by life and preserved in rock for up to billions of years.

Perserverence chooses a sample using its suite of onboard instruments to detect whether organic molecules are present before coring.

Once extracted, the core samples will be returned to Earth where scientists can analyse them in laboratories.

They will identify any organics present and characterise their molecular structures in detail.

These analyses can help determine whether any organic molecules contained in Martian delta rocks are biomarkers or non-biological organics.

US space agency NASA wants these rocks to be brought back to Earth in the 2030s.

Scientists hope that, as well as providing answers about potential ancient life on the Red Planet, they will also reveal more about Mars’ climate and how it has evolved.

However, up until now, collecting the core samples has proven a challenge.

An artist's impression shows Jezero Crater as it may have looked as a lake billions of years ago

An artist’s impression shows Jezero Crater as it may have looked as a lake billions of years ago

Nasa's Perseverance rover (pictured) chooses a sample using its suite of onboard instruments to detect whether organic molecules are present in some rock before coring. Once extracted, the core samples will be returned to Earth where scientists can analyse them in laboratories

Nasa’s Perseverance rover (pictured) chooses a sample using its suite of onboard instruments to detect whether organic molecules are present in some rock before coring. Once extracted, the core samples will be returned to Earth where scientists can analyse them in laboratories

Last week, the Perseverance team hoped to sample Betty’s Rock, a layered rock made up of alternating coarse-grained and fine-grained materials. 

They believe that Betty’s Rock came from the Rocky Top outcrop many meters above, breaking free and landing near the bottom of the delta front at some point in the past.  

Unfortunately, its jagged layers and awkward shape prevented the rover from safely manoeuvring its arm and placing the corer on the target to abrade and drill.

Instead, the rover will now sample Skinner Ridge Rock, a low-lying rock that looks very similar to Betty’s Rock, but with a much more approachable shape.

The process of moving over to the rock, study its composition and collecting a sample will take several sols – days on Mars – to complete.

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Perseverance landed on Mars on February 18 last year, after a nearly seven-month journey through space, and made its first test drive just over two weeks later. 

Up until the beginning of ‘#Campaign 2′ – the current search of Jezero Crater for signs of life – the rover spent time testing its instruments and surveying Mars’ geological features.

It collected eight rock-core samples from its first science campaign and completed a record-breaking, 31-Martian-day (or sol) dash across about 3 miles (5 kilometres) of Mars.

Perseverance arrived at the doorstep of Jezero Crater’s ancient river delta on April 13. 

Dubbed ‘Three Forks’ by the Perseverance team (a reference to the spot where three route options to the delta merge), the location serves as the staging area for the rover’s second science expedition, the ‘Delta Front Campaign’.

Several miles wide, the fan-shaped delta formed where an ancient river spilled into the lake that once filled Jezero Crater. 

Rising more than 130 feet (40 metres) above the crater floor and filled with jagged cliffs, angled surfaces, projecting boulders, and sand-filled pockets, the delta promises to hold numerous geologic revelations — perhaps even proof that microscopic life existed on Mars billions of years ago. 

Perseverance uses a drill on the end of its robotic arm and a complex sample collection system to gather rock cores for return to Earth.

The rover will collect rocks from the Jezero Crater (pictured) and leave the samples at the base of the delta to be retrieved by future missions

The rover will collect rocks from the Jezero Crater (pictured) and leave the samples at the base of the delta to be retrieved by future missions

The rover is expected to collect around eight samples over about half an Earth year during the Delta Front Campaign.

Perseverance is then expected to put down its first collection of rocks from the delta when it returns to the crater floor at the end of the year.

After completing the descent, the robot will, according to current plans, again ascend the delta – perhaps via another, untravelled route – to begin the ‘Delta Top Campaign’, which will last about half an Earth year as well. 

‘The delta at Jezero Crater promises to be a veritable geologic feast and one of the best locations on Mars to look for signs of past microscopic life,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. 

‘The answers are out there – and Team Perseverance is ready to find them.’

Mission scientist Professor Sanjeev Gupta, from Imperial College London, explained why experts were hopeful, saying that rivers flowing into a delta bring nutrients helpful for life, while the fine-grained sediment is good for preservation.

In this image released by NASA, the drill hole from Perseverance's second sample-collection attempt last year can be seen in a rock

In this image released by NASA, the drill hole from Perseverance’s second sample-collection attempt last year can be seen in a rock

Scientists hope that as well as providing answers about potential ancient life on the Red Planet, the rock samples will also reveal more about Mars' climate and how it has evolved

Scientists hope that as well as providing answers about potential ancient life on the Red Planet, the rock samples will also reveal more about Mars’ climate and how it has evolved 

NASA MARS 2020: PERSEVERANCE ROVER AND INGENUITY HELICOPTER ARE SEARCHING FOR LIFE ON THE RED PLANET

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth in the earliest years of the evolution of the solar system.

Named Perseverance, the main car-sized rover is exploring an ancient river delta within the Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a 1,600ft deep lake.

It is believed that the region hosted microbial life some 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago and the rover will examine soil samples to hunt for evidence of the life.

Nasa's Mars 2020 rover (artist's impression) is searching for signs of ancient life on Mars in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet

Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s impression) is searching for signs of ancient life on Mars in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet

The $2.5 billion (£1.95 billion) Mars 2020 spaceship launched on July 30 with the rover and helicopter inside – and landed successfully on February 18, 2021.

Perseverance landed inside the crater and will slowly collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis.

A second mission will fly to the planet and return the samples, perhaps by the later 2020s in partnership with the European Space Agency.

This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA's 'sky-crane' system

This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA’s ‘sky-crane’ system

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