Mars Perseverance halts rock sample storage due to debris

A solution could take some time.

Pebble-sized debris can be seen in the bit carousel of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover in this Jan. 7, 2022, image. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The Mars Perseverance rover's sample collection has run into a snag. NASA reports the rover stopped caching samples after debris partly blocked the bit carousel (the device that stores drill bits and passes sample tubes for internal processing). The rover encountered the anomaly on December 29th, but the mission team had to wait until January 6th to send a command to extract the drill bit, undock the robot arm from the carousel and take images to verify what happened.

The obstacles are believed to be pebbles that fell out of the sample tube when dropping off the coring bit, preventing that bit from sitting neatly in the carousel. The storage is crucial for NASA's plans to eventually return the samples to Earth.

This isn't the end to sample gathering. NASA/JPL's chief sampling engineer, Louise Jandura, noted the carousel was designed to run with debris. It's the first time the team has had to clear debris, however, and Jandura said operators would take as much time as they needed to get rid of the pebbles in a "controlled and orderly fashion."

This isn't the first time Perseverance has run into trouble. The rover failed to collect samples during its first attempt, while the Ingenuity helicopter suffered a processing error during its sixth flight. All the same, this illustrates the challenges of the mission — even a seemingly pedestrian task as storing a sample can go awry in the wrong conditions. And when Mars is so distant, fixes aren't necessarily easy or certain.