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NASA Investigates Mystery Objects on Mars Rover Sample System

The saga of weird debris on the red planet continues for Perseverance.

Very close-up view of the round drill chuck on the Perseverance rover with a tiny thread-like object circled in red.
There's a a "small hairline object" on the drill chuck of the Perseverance rover.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Red circle by Amanda Kooser/CNET

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

There's some good news from Mars, and there's some odd news from Mars. First, the good news: NASA's Perseverance rover successfully collected its 12th rock core sample, stashing away a tiny bit of the red planet in a tube for safekeeping. Now, for the weird news: the rover team noticed some mysterious objects stuck on the sample system.

As part of its post-sampling routine, the rover takes up-close pictures of some of the sampling system components. "On those images, two small pieces of debris were visible -- a small object on the coring bit (stored in the bit carousel) and a small hairline object on the drill chuck," NASA JPL Project Manager Art Thompson wrote in a rover update on Friday.

Take a close look at the thread-like piece of debris. It's not a cat hair.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Red circle by Amanda Kooser/CNET

The hairline object is easy to spot in an image from Aug. 4 as highlighted in the update. It looks like a small loose thread, like something that would unwind from a shirt button. 

Percy's team is now working on sorting out where the debris came from and whether it might be from the rover or if it's leftover from the entry, descent and landing (EDL) system that delivered the rover to Mars in early 2021.

Perseverance has sighted quite a few bits of enigmatic debris, including a tangle that looked like noodles but was likely a bit of netting from the EDL that had blown across the landscape from where the landing system crashed down 1.24 miles (2 kilometers) away.

The bit carousel had a previous debris issue at the end of 2021 when some small pebbles got in the way of storing a sample. The team was able to clear the small rocks and keep the rover on track with its important sampling work. NASA hopes to bring those collected bits of Mars back to Earth with an ambitious return mission that's still in the development phase and will involve sending a couple new helicopters to Mars. 

Perseverance is exploring an ancient river delta region of the Jezero Crater. The samples collected there could help scientists understand if Mars ever hosted microbial life. 

When investigating the netting debris, the Perseverance team had expressed some concern over potential contamination of the sample tubes. The rover is taking more images of its equipment from different angles and also taking a closer look at the ground around it where it collected the sample. Thompson said additional imaging and other diagnostic activities could take place early this week as NASA seeks to understand the nature of the debris.