After initially failing to capture a rock sample, NASA has confirmed that Perseverance succeeded in its second attempt. The space agency has verified that a pencil-width core of rust-colored rock is safely trapped in the rover's sample tube tube, ready to be processed and sent back to Earth, CNET has reported.
After NASA initially thought it had nabbed the first sample last month, a subsequent check showed the sample tube empty. That created something of a mystery, with scientists wondering where the rock could have gone. Eventually, NASA determined that the particular sample it tried to collect was actually too powdery to be collected. "The hardware performed as commanded, but the rock did not cooperate this time," JPL engineers said at the time.
This time, NASA wasn't getting ahead of itself. While photos taken on September 1st shortly after the operation clearly showed rock in the collector, NASA wanted to be "extra certain" that it was successfully stored. Following an operation to percuss the drill bit (and ingest the sample), new images were taken, but the position of the sun made it difficult to see the rock.
I’ve got it! With better lighting down the sample tube, you can see the rock core I collected is still in there. Up next, I’ll process this sample and seal the tube. #SamplingMars— NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) September 5, 2021
Latest images: https://t.co/Ex1QDo3eC2 pic.twitter.com/gumqpmoXBW
This Saturday, however, the sun cooperated and the sample inside is clearly visible. The images match earlier photos of a grind spot on a nearby sample section, revealing a rust-colored, possibly sedimentary rock that could show the presence of iron along with olivine and other minerals that may have precipitated from water, according to Arizona State University's Steven Ruff (via his YouTube channel Mars Guy).
Now, Perseverance must process, seal and and eventually store the sample somewhere on the surface of Mars. It will then repeat the process and collect as many samples as possible, leaving them scattered about the surface. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will send a Martian lander and sample collection rover to the same location near Jezero Crater to gather up those tubes and place them into a rocket bound for Earth.
The only challenge is that said rover and rocket haven't been built yet and don't even have a finished design. However, the agencies involved plan to launch it to Mars by 2026, with arrival there by 2028. They don't expect to receive the samples until 2031, and suffice to say, all of those phases of the Perseverance project will be a huge challenge.