NASA’s robotic rover Perseverance is getting ready to drill its first rock sample, thanks to the latest images from Mars helicopter Ingenuity, according to the space agency.
The drilling will take place in an area known as Crater Floor Fractured Rough, according to the agency. According to NASA, the first signals will be sent Thursday to begin the drilling process, which could take several days.
According to Kevin Hand, the agency’s deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration, the area shows promising signs of water activity in the ancient lakebed.
Hand explained that the drilling will help NASA “understand the sedimentary history of what’s around us and what’s in Jezero Crater.”
“We are on the cusp of a new era of planetary science and discovery,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science, in a news release a day earlier.
Orbital images have revealed the presence of sedimentary rock at Jezero, but the rover’s instruments are more precise and will help scientists better understand Martian geologic history.
The rover requires about 11 days to complete drilling and sampling, as it must receive its instructions from Earth — hundreds of millions of miles away, according to NASA.
The drill on Perseverance is made of high-grade tungsten carbide, which is used for the most difficult jobs on the planet – though it is not as hard as a diamond.
The first step is to grind the surface of a nearby rock to remove any dust or corrosion from the atmosphere. NASA will then examine the exposed surface with multiple cameras and sensors to determine the rock’s composition. Those photographs were taken on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The rover will then rest for a day before beginning the energy-intensive task of drilling. The drill also places the rock sample in a tube that is sealed off from the Martian atmosphere in preparation for a possible return trip to Earth on a future mission.
The drilling site was not the only one NASA had in mind. Ingenuity took images July 24 of a rock outcrop called Raised Ridges that scientists had hoped would provide more signs of ancient water activity.
But the helicopter flight told NASA that Raised Ridges wasn’t as high or as interesting as scientists once thought, Hand said. Driving to Raised Ridges and having a disappointing outcome would have cost the agency several days of precious exploration time on the planet, he said.
“So far, we’re not seeing anything at the Raised Ridges that immediately tells us we have to go there,” Hand said. “The reconnaissance done by helicopter proved immensely useful in answering some very basic questions.”
The tiny, 4-pound Ingenuity has flown more than a mile on Mars. The 10th flight, on July 24, and the 11th flight, on Thursday, both set new distance records of 254 yards and 415 yards, respectively. The 11th flight’s detailed colour images have yet to arrive on Earth.
Perseverance and Ingenuity were launched from Florida last July 30 and arrived on Mars on February 18.
Perseverance may still scan the Raised Ridges feature in the coming months, according to Hand, but it is no longer a priority.
“We’re still scratching our heads as to what exactly formed these ridges … but we’ve determined they are not as raised as we thought they were,” he said.
This image, taken by the Mars helicopter Ingenuity during its ninth flight, shows a rocky terrain in the Jezero Crater area on the Martian surface on July 5, 2021. Photo courtesy of NASA