This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.
NASA's Perseverance rover has been on Mars since February. It first acted as a companion and witness to the triumphant flights of the Ingenuity helicopter, but it's now into its first science campaign and the early results are taking center stage.
The rover is on a road trip and is preparing for a big milestone: collecting a rock sample and tucking it away into a container. The vehicle is equipped with tubes it can fill with rocks for pickup by a future mission. The idea is to bring them back to Earth one day.
NASA detailed the rover's latest work during a briefing Wednesday. Perseverance is exploring a dry lake bed in Jezero Crater on Mars in a search for signs of ancient microbial life. A formerly wet environment is the perfect place to pursue this quest. You can rewatch the briefing here:
NASA hopes to kick off the first sample collection within two weeks at a site called the Cratered Floor Fractured Rough. The process starts with identifying the exact rock to sample. The rover will conduct an imagery survey and a detailed geologic analysis of a similar rock that's a "double" for the intended sample.
Once the analysis of the doppelganger rock is completed, Perseverance will drill out a core sample from the target rock. The sample will be about the size of a piece of chalk and will be stored in a sample tube.
If all goes well, NASA hopes to send a spacecraft to Mars to pick up the samples and return them to Earth in the 2030s. The sampling process is quite involved and will take about 11 days to complete.
The rover team is seeing intriguing evidence that the lake may've gone through cycles of filling and emptying during its life span. Researchers are also trying to sort out if some of the rocks seen by the rover are volcanic or sedimentary in origin. The rover acts like a mobile geologist, so this is an answerable question as the machine takes a closer look.
Perseverance also has been getting an eyeful of its surroundings. The windy conditions have generated whirlwinds that are appearing in the rover's camera views. "We're getting photobombed by dust devils," said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley.
NASA Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter explore the wilds of MarsSee all photos
These initial science results and sampling plans are just a start to what promises to be a long and ambitious Mars rover mission.
"When Neil Armstrong took the first sample from the Sea of Tranquility 52 years ago, he began a process that would rewrite what humanity knew about the moon," NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement on Wednesday. "I have every expectation that Perseverance's first sample from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars. We are on the threshold of a new era of planetary science and discovery."
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