NASA studies Mars rover sample collection failure

The Perseverance Mars rover, making its first attempt to collect a rock sample from the floor of Jezero Crater, drilled into a targeted rock as planned Friday, but photos and telemetry indicate nothing was captured, possibly due to the nature of the targeted formation.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are reviewing data from the rover to figure out why the initial sample collection attempt was “not the ‘hole-in-one’ we hoped for,” said NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen.

“There is always risk with breaking new ground,” he said in a statement. “I’m confident we have the right team working this, and we will persevere toward a solution to ensure future success.”

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Crushed rock surrounds a bore hole drilled by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover during its first attempt to collect a rock sample from the floor of Jezero Crater.  NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance was designed to collect dozens of samples over the course of its mission to help scientists characterize the Jezero Crater landing site where a 28-mile-lake once rose and fell and where the remnants of ancient organisms might have settled out and been preserved.

The samples, sealed in 43 small titanium tubes, will be deposited on the surface for eventual retrieval by another lander later this decade and returned to Earth aboard yet another spacecraft for detailed laboratory analysis.

Since landing in Jezero Crater in February, Perseverance has traveled south of its touchdown point, recently pausing amid promising rocks known as “cratered floor fractured rough” to make its first sample collection attempt.

The rover’s Sample and Caching System used a percussive drill on the end of its 7-foot-long robot arm to bore into a targeted rock. Telemetry shows the drill and bit, with a sample collection tube inside, were used as planned and the sample tube was processed. But no rock was captured.

“The sampling process is autonomous from beginning to end,” Jessica Samuels, the surface mission manager for Perseverance, said in NASA’s statement. “One of the steps that occurs after placing a probe into the collection tube is to measure the volume of the sample. The probe did not encounter the expected resistance that would be there if a sample were inside the tube.”

Engineers plan to use a camera on the end of the rover’s robot arm to capture close-up images of the bore hole to get a better idea of what might have happened.

“The initial thinking is that the empty tube is more likely a result of the rock target not reacting the way we expected during coring, and less likely a hardware issue with the Sampling and Caching System,” said Jennifer Trosper, project manager for Perseverance at JPL.

“Over the next few days, the team will be spending more time analyzing the data we have, and also acquiring some additional diagnostic data to support understanding the root cause for the empty tube.”