NASA’s Perseverance rover is almost ready to set off on its journey to Mars, but there are a few pieces of equipment still being integrated with the robot. For example, it won’t get its nuclear battery until next month, and teams at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center have just loaded a collection of 43 sample tubes into the rover’s underbelly. These tubes might one day come back to Earth, but NASA hasn’t decided how to make that happen. In the meantime, engineers have gone to great lengths to ensure that Perseverance will be able to fill these containers with Martian materials that scientists will want to get their hands on.
Perseverance includes a suite of instruments to analyze samples on Mars — that’s the primary purpose of the mission. However, even the best-planned robotic mission can’t compare to having samples on Earth for detailed study. The rover’s role in a future sample return mission is a bit aspirational, but NASA can take its time designing the return phase of the mission, and it already has some ideas. For now, the focus is on getting Perseverance to Mars and making sure it can collect those samples while it goes about its primary mission.
Before loading the sample tubes, the team had to ensure they were completely clean and sterile. The tubes were heated in a special oven to ensure no microorganisms were alive inside. Initially, NASA planned to heat the tubes to 662 degrees Fahrenheit (350 degrees Celsius) to make sure everything was dead. However, heating the tubes to such a high temperature affected their structure, and they didn’t slide as smoothly in the rover’s various mechanisms. The fallback plan was to heat the containers at 302 degrees Fahrenheit (150 Celsius) for 24 hours.
The tubes are hermetically sealed, and slotted into a gold-colored enclosure that provides an additional layer of contamination protection. Technicians slotted the containers into the rover on May 20th where they will remain until Perseverance can collect samples on Mars.
The rover has a 2-meter robotic arm that will be important in much of its work, but there’s a smaller 0.5-meter arm underneath Perseverance that will assist with collecting core samples in the tubes. Both the drill and the tubes are designed in such a way that they can preserve the stratum of core samples and also accommodate softer soil samples. The primary arm will drill into the surface and break off a core sample inside the tube. The tube then goes to a carousel that hands it off to the arm on the underside of the rover. Perseverance will measure the volume of the sample, take photos, and then place the tube in a storage module that a future mission can retrieve.
Perseverance is scheduled to lift off on its way to Mars on July 20th. It will land in Jezero Crater on Mars with a rocket-powered sky crane in early 2021. The sample return mission could bring the samples back to Earth as soon as 2031.
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