Nasa solves mystery of piece of Mars that went missing as Perseverance rover searched for alien life

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 12 August 2021 15:37
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<p>This image taken by one the hazard cameras aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover on Aug. 6, 2021, shows the hole drilled in what the rover’s science team calls a “paver rock” in preparation for the mission’s first attempt to collect a sample from Mars</p>

This image taken by one the hazard cameras aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover on Aug. 6, 2021, shows the hole drilled in what the rover’s science team calls a “paver rock” in preparation for the mission’s first attempt to collect a sample from Mars

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Nasa thinks it knows where a mysteriously missing piece of Mars went.

Last week, the Perseverance rover conducted one of its central pieces of research, digging into the red planet and attempting to extract some soil, which Nasa hopes to bring back to Earth in the future. The mission all appeared to go well, with the rover drilling three inches down as expected and leaving behind a clean and precise borehole.

But when engineers checked what the rover had extracted, there was nothing there. The sample tube that was expected to have a core sample in it was just empty.

Now Nasa has determined that the rock was unusually soft, and that it was not strong enough to make a sample. Instead, the fragments probably stuck in the hole, ended up left behind in the cuttings, or both.

The rover is now moving on to the next sampling site in its quest for signs of ancient Martian life; it should arrive there by early next month.

Imaging by the rover and its companion helicopter, Ingenuity, showed the sedimentary rock should be much better for sampling there, Louise Jandura, chief engineer for Perseverance’s sampling campaign, said on Wednesday.

“The hardware performed as commanded but the rock did not cooperate this time,” Ms Jandura wrote in an online update.

“It reminds me yet again of the nature of exploration. A specific result is never guaranteed no matter how much you prepare.”

Nasa is looking to collect about 35 samples that would be returned via future spacecraft in a decade.

It is not the first time a Mars lander has run into ground resistance. A German digger on Nasa’s InSight lander failed to burrow more than a couple of feet, far short of its target. The clumping soil didn’t provide enough friction for the heat-measuring device, and experimenters gave up in January.

The little helicopter, Ingenuity, meanwhile, is still wowing its team. It has completed 11 test flights, the latest one lasting more than two minutes, and even conducted aerial surveys of Jezero Crater. That is the ancient river delta where Perseverance and its hitchhiking chopper landed in February, following a nearly seven-month flight from Earth.

Scientists believe the area would have been prime for microscopic life billions of years ago, if it existed.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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