Mars rover nears milestone in ambitious plan to return first rocks from another planet | Science


After gathering a dozen pinkie-size rock samples over its 18 months on Mars, the Perseverance rover has a message for planetary scientists: Your order is prepared for pickup.

Next week, at a Mars neighborhood workshop, mission managers will reveal a plan to deposit 10 or 11 of the titanium pattern tubes on the ground of Jezero crater, which held a lake billions of years in the past. If NASA officers endorse the plan, the rover may start to drop the samples as quickly as November, assembling a cache that can play a key function in an bold plan to retrieve the primary rocks from one other planet. The Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission would use a small rocket to ferry rocks to an orbiting spacecraft that might ship them to a particular facility on Earth by 2033. There, laboratory researchers may comply with up on the rover’s tantalizing discovering that many samples comprise natural molecules—the constructing blocks of life—and study whether or not they had been made by dwelling issues.

The pattern cache is definitely MSR’s backup plan. Plan A is for the rover to stow a bigger set of 30 samples in its stomach because it continues its scientific treasure hunt and ship them to the return rocket round 2030. But if the rover will get caught or fails alongside the best way, researchers don’t wish to be left empty-handed. “Call it an insurance policy,” says Susanne Schwenzer, a planetary mineralogist on the Open University and a member of the MSR marketing campaign science group. “Once we have that cache on the ground we know we always have the option to pick it up.”

For the rover crew, establishing the backup cache is a milestone that reveals how MSR—a dream of Mars scientists for a technology—is beginning to come collectively. “The fact that we have reached this point is pretty amazing,” says Ken Farley, the rover mission’s venture scientist and a geologist on the California Institute of Technology. “It’s really getting real.” The cache can also be a list of rocks from the rover’s 13 kilometers of exploration, extending from the crater flooring the place it landed to the sting of a fossilized river delta.

Some come from lava flows, a shocking and welcome discovery for rover scientists who had been anticipating to seek out principally lakebed sediments on the crater flooring. These igneous rocks comprise radioactive components equivalent to uranium. Their decay supplies a clock that Earth-based labs can use so far the second when the rocks crystallized. Some of the volcanic rocks are thought to have been laid down earlier than the delta, and a few could have come after, so they may present time bounds on the watery episode that created it.

Researchers additionally wish to use lab instruments to detect historic magnetic fields frozen into sure volcanic minerals. Mars lacks a magnetic area in the present day, however meteorites from the planet present traces of an historic area. Its loss may have allowed water molecules to flee to house, explaining why Mars is so dry in the present day. Dating when the magnetic area disappeared may bolster that idea, says Tanja Bosak, a geobiologist on the rover crew on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The volcanic rocks may even maintain indicators of historic life. Perseverance has already discovered that some comprise carbonates and sulfates—an indication that scorching water as soon as percolated by way of the rocks, driving reactions favorable for early biochemistry. “There are water-rock interactions that would produce hydrogen and methane that could form a habitable environment,” says Katherine French, an natural geochemist on the U.S. Geological Survey and member of the MSR marketing campaign science group.

In the search for previous life, nevertheless, the fossilized river delta has all the time been the primary attraction due to how sediments may protect telltale indicators. Those may very well be chemical: natural molecules adsorbed on clay minerals within the muds. They may even be bodily: microbial fossils entombed as silt particles obtained cemented collectively over time. “The cell effectively gets sealed away from the processes that would degrade it,” Bosak says.

In April, the rover arrived on the 40-meter-tall cliff on the delta’s edge. Last week, the rover crew revealed that one of many drilling targets there, a fine-grained mudstone, contained the best focus of natural molecules the rover has ever seen—a category of ring-shaped molecules known as aromatics.

Further scrutiny on Earth may present whether or not dwelling issues made these molecules. Researchers will wish to see whether or not they comprise extra of the sunshine isotopes of carbon that life prefers, says Chris Herd, a planetary geologist on the rover crew on the University of Alberta, Edmonton. “We’re really looking for evidence of metabolism.” Bosak desires to seek out even clearer indicators of historic life: the robust lipid molecules that may kind cell partitions. “You hope for an outline of a cell,” she says. “You will never find peptides and proteins, but lipids can persist.”

Rover managers wish to add a couple of extra samples to their assortment earlier than they drop the backup cache. Next week, they plan to drill at a web site known as Enchanted Lake, which has the potential to offer the best grained delta rock of all. Soon after that, the rover will accumulate a pattern of wind-deposited soil, which “integrates” info from throughout all of Mars, says Katie Stack Morgan, the mission’s deputy venture scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We could be getting a truly global sample of the fine-grained dust that circulates on Mars.” The crew additionally desires the cache to incorporate a tube containing nothing however air, an essential useful resource for many who research the martian environment.

Once the rover crew has accomplished its cache and NASA has accredited the plan, a small arm below the rover will start to discharge the pattern tubes. It’s not going to drop them in a pile. Instead, the rover will spend about 2 months depositing them one after the other, a number of meters aside, in a flat space of the crater. “It’s like a billiards table,” says Meenakshi Wadhwa, MSR principal scientist at Arizona State University, Tempe. “It’s as good as it gets in terms of a place to land a sample retrieval mission.”

Current plans name for a pair of autonomous helicopters, just like the one Perseverance deployed final 12 months, to gather particular person samples and carry them to the 3-meter-tall rocket that can launch them into orbit. Farley says he’s not nervous about discovering the tubes. “We will know to within a centimeter or so where they are.”

If the rover stays wholesome, in fact, the backup cache could by no means make it to Earth. But psychologically, the cache will probably be a spur to proceed with the remainder of the costly, dangerous MSR scheme and an incentive to make sure it really works flawlessly. “When we place that cache, that’s sending a message,” Bosak says, “that this is a returnable set of samples.”

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