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NASA celebrates rover's first Mars rock sample, but uncertainty lingers

NASA is checking to see if the rock core is where it's supposed to be, or if another sample has disappeared.

This might be the Perseverance rover's first rock sample from Mars. NASA hopes to bring it to Earth with a future mission.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU
This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Success at last? NASA's Perseverance rover may have achieved a big first for its Mars mission by drilling and capturing a rock sample that could one day be brought back to Earth. But there's still some doubt.

The rover had previously attempted to collect a first sample, but ended up with an empty tube when the rock crumbled. The second attempt from a different rock looks promising. Raw images sent back from Mars appear to show a rock core tucked into place as expected, though we're waiting on official confirmation from NASA.

"The project got its first cored rock under its belt, and that's a phenomenal accomplishment," said NASA project manager Jennifer Trosper in a statement on Thursday. 

NASA shared a look at the sample the same day, but wasn't ready to declare success just yet, saying pictures taken after an arm move designed to clear off the lip of the tube "are inconclusive due to poor lighting." The rover will snap some more close-ups to figure out what's going on.

"Sampling Mars is underway. I've drilled into my rock target, and my team will be looking at more data and images to confirm if we were able to get and retain an intact core," the rover team tweeted earlier on Thursday along with a picture of the rock target.

Perseverance is equipped with 43 sample tubes, one of which is full of Martian atmosphere after the first attempt. NASA is planning a future mission to retrieve the tubes from Mars and bring them back to Earth for study. It's the rover's job to fill them up with interesting geologic finds.

Successfully filling and stashing a tube with Martian rock is a critical step that will show the sampling system is working properly. The target rock is named "Rochette" and the rover team spent time inspecting it by grinding away a bit of the outer surface to get a better look prior to drilling. 

Initial images of the rock and the drill hole show what looks like a clean operation, so there's hope it went as planned. NASA should have a better idea of what's happening in the tube after images come back over the weekend. If the new images are inconclusive, then the team could use a volume probe to check the tube's contents.

Perseverance landed in February, but it's still early into its mission to seek out signs of ancient microbial life in the Jezero Crater, an area once covered by a lake. The crater is dry and dusty now, but it has lots of stories to tell. Perseverance's first rock sample will be one chapter in that intriguing tale.

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