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NASA Mars Rover May Have a Dust Problem in Its Rock Sample System

Perseverance is trying to seal up a chunk of rock for safekeeping, but something has gone wrong.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Close-up photo from NASA's Mars Perseverance rover looks at the rover's drill bit from an oblique angle. A sample of rock core sits inside the hollow, gold-colored bit, which has teeth around its front edge, and a spiral pattern along it.

Perseverance's mast-mounted camera system captured this view of its sample No. 14.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Rock collecting is one of the NASA Perseverance rover's most important duties on Mars. It's drilling out pencil-wide samples of precious Martian rocks that NASA is planning to pick up with a future mission so they can be studied back on Earth. But Percy encountered an anomaly in October when trying to seal up the tube holding its 14th rock sample. NASA is trying to fix it.

On Thursday, NASA offered an update on the rover's efforts to get the seal capped onto the sample, which is nicknamed "Mageik." This is a multi-step process that takes place inside the rover's Sampling and Caching System. Said NASA, "When the sample handling system attempted to dispense a seal in the tube of the Mageik sample, the seal encountered too much resistance and did not come free."

Close-up view of the circular opening of a gold-colored sample tube.
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Close-up view of the circular opening of a gold-colored sample tube.

The No. 14 rock sample hasn't been sealed into its tube yet on board the Perseverance rover.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

The rover detected the problem and stashed the tube for safekeeping while Percy's team went to work on figuring out what went wrong. One possible culprit is that Mars' pesky dust is getting in the way of a clean seal. Imaging inside the caching system suggested there was some dust on the lip of the tube. 

The system has a built-in sweeping tool designed to clean around the tube's opening, so the rover team put that to use. After 19 sweeping operations and a total of three tries at sealing the tub, the seal is still stubbornly staying in its dispenser. That means the troubleshooting work will continue.

The rover team has had to work through some other oddball challenges since Perseverance arrived on Mars in early 2021. Some pebbles got in the way of sampling activities earlier this year. In August, a rock core sample mysteriously went missing

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Percy is currently exploring a fascinating area of the Jezero Crater that was once an ancient river delta. The finds here have been delightful. The rover's on-board lab work found signs of organic molecules in an earlier rock sample. That doesn't prove the existence of long-ago microbial life, but it does make scientists pumped to get these rocks back to Earth for more definitive answers.

NASA said it will review the data on the anomaly and then work out how to proceed. Despite the occasional snafu, Percy continues to roll and do its science work, undaunted by the uncooperative tube seal.

Watch this: Mars Sample Return Mission Will Bring Rocks and Air to Earth