The Perseverance rover had a bit of a false start to its science campaign on Mars last month, when it appeared to have successfully collected a rock only to find its sampling tube empty. In its second coring attempt, NASA directed the rover to a different patch of rock, and images received on Earth today suggest the rover was able to core and secure a Martian rock sample from that second site. Years from now, another mission may pick up Perseverance’s samples and carry them to Earth, where scientists will be able to inspect the Martian material up close.
NASA has yet to confirm that the rover’s extraction was a success, and until they do, there’ll be a bit of uncertainty. Early on September 2, the rover’s social media team confirmed that the rock target had been successfully drilled, posting an image of the rock with a marvelous hole in the middle of it. But that’s no guarantee on its own—a similar image of a hole in the ground indicated that the first rock sample site had been cored, but no rock had actually been retained by the rover. NASA concluded that the first sample likely crumbled to dust, surprising mission scientists who expected the rock to behave differently.
For the latest attempt, we have images from the rover that show it holding up a piece of the Red Planet in its robotic vice grip. They can be compared to later images with the bit of rock absent, suggesting the sample successfully made it into the tube.
If the sampling is affirmed by NASA to be a success, the victory may lie in the constitution of the second rock. The drilled rock is part of a stretch of ridgeline nicknamed Citadelle. Citadelle sticks out of Jezero Crater, the dried-up lake bed on which the rover alighted in February. The site differs from the previous sample attempt site—the Crater Floor Fractured Rough—in that NASA scientists believe it will be a bit more robust, so it won’t break down when the rover abrades away the rock surface and cores the layer underneath.
The cores—Perseverance has room for over 30 more—are a first step toward a better understanding of Mars; if the rock samples don’t shed light on the planet’s past habitability, they will at least indicate something of the planet’s geology. NASA’s ultimate goal is return mission in the early 2030s, which will bring these tubes and their contents to Earth.
Depending on the results, Perseverance could stick around for another try at this stretch of rock or move on to its next target. Eventually, the rover is expected to sample an ancient river delta that once flowed from the lake in Jezero Crater. That’s thought to be the most likely location of stromatolite-like fossils, based on where the microbial organisms crop up on Earth.