The Mars explorer of the American space agency NASA started dropping rocks samples collected on the surface of the planet. A different spacecraft is to retrieve the samples at a future date and return them to Earth.
The Perseverance rover landed on Mars in February 2021. Since September 2021, it has been collecting rock, soil and atmospheric samples in the Jezero crater region of Mars.
NASA officials said that detailed study of the samples on Earth will be important in helping scientists understand whether life once existed on Mars.
NASA said Perseverance has collected 18 different samples. The space agency plans to pick up materials collected during a Mars rover Mission scheduled for 2028.
The joint mission with the European Space Agency will involve a spacecraft lander sent to Mars along with a small rocket. The samples will be loaded into the rocket to be transported to Earth. If the mission goes well, the samples could reach Earth in 2033.
The samples are kept in a storage area inside the rover. They are kept inside air-tight titanium tubes to protect against the harsh conditions on Mars. Most of these will be stored in a container at Perseverance until they are shipped back. But NASA decided to drop 10 of them on the planet’s surface in case something goes wrong with the ones kept inside the rover.
NASA said the tubes that fell to the surface could be picked up by a helicopter-like vehicle and carried to the rocket for delivery to Earth. The space agency has already demonstrated that its Ingenuity helicopter can successfully operate on Mars.
Perseverance collected the samples with robotic equipment attached to the rover. Collection operations are directed by NASA mission controllers on Earth. Persistence has a drill attached to a robotic arm that it uses to collect small, circular rock samples from below the surface.
NASA said in a statement that the first sample container was dropped on the Martian surface by Perseverance on December 21. The agency plans to drop the remaining nine canisters within the next two months.
Perseverance will release the samples in an area of Jezero Crater known as “Three Forks.” Scientists believe that the Jezero crater contains the remains of an ancient river system. NASA considers the region a good place to look for possible signs of microscopic life. Scientists believe that if life ever existed on Mars, it would have been present 3 to 4 billion years ago, when water flowed on the planet.
Meenakshi Wadhwa is an Arizona State University scientist who helps lead the Mars Sample Return program science team. He said the samples collected so far represent a good mix of different types of rock and soil found in the area Perseverance is exploring. The rover still has more than 20 empty canisters that can be used in the collection mission.
NASA officials said the operation to drop samples on the surface of Mars was complex. This is because the selected locations must be accessible by both flying and driving vehicles.
Richard Cook is the director of the Mars Sample Return Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
He said that once the 10 fallout sites were identified, the team then had to map out exactly how the rover could efficiently reach those places to develop the samples. “You can’t just throw them into a big one pile because recovery helicopters are designed to interact with only one tube at a time.’
The team decided to create an “operating area” that spans about 5.5 meters for each drop point. The pipes should fall about five to 15 meters apart.
NASA said mission controllers will look at several images taken by the rover to help them decide where to drop the samples. The images will also help the team pinpoint where the samples are in case they are covered by sand or dust before they are collected.
I’m Bryan Lynn.
Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English based on NASA reports.
Words in this story
sample – n. a small amount of something that gives you information about the object from which it was taken
Mission – n. a major project or journey, especially one involving space travel
drill – n. tool or machine used to make holes in hard substance
air-tight –adj. secured so that no air can enter
pile – n. a collection of many objects placed on top of each other
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