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After a false start last month during which the Perseverance rover managed to take a rock sample but then lost it, scientists have now succeeded in successfully collecting a piece of Mars.
This is the first rock sample ever to be collected from the red planet and will hopefully be followed by dozens more.
After almost six months on Mars, the Perseverance rover has made history once more.
The rover drilled into the surface of the planet and obtained its first sample of rock. In the coming days, new images will be under better sunlight conditions will confirm if the sample has been successfully collected, after which it will be safely deposited it in a collection tube where it will remain until it is retrieved from Mars at a later date.
Two of the primary aims of the NASA Mars 2020 mission are to reconstruct the landscape of Jezero crater and to look for signs of ancient life that may have flourished on the now arid planet. The rocks date to 3.5 billion years ago, making them some of the oldest in the entire solar system and will give scientists a glimpse at what conditions were like when the planets were only just forming.
The Jezero crater is also thought to have once been the site of a river delta on the surface of Mars. If the planet supported life in the past, then it is in these ancient waters that scientists think that it may have lived.
Dr Keyron Hickman-Lewis is a palaeontologist at the Museum who studies ancient microbial life, and is also a member of NASA's Mars2020 Science Team. He is one of 15 international Returned Sample Science Participating Scientists (RSS-PSs) on the mission who will lead the science team in its effort to figure out which rocks the rover will collect and returned to Earth for future research.
'As Perseverance begins its sampling campaign, it's important to remember that upon return to Earth these materials will be called upon to answer the questions of a great number of scientists over a number of years,' says Keyron. 'It is imperative that we carefully choose our sampling targets to be materials from which we can obtain the maximum geological and geochemical information.'
The Perseverance rover is just the first part of a long-term sample return mission. The rover will collect the rock samples, store them in tubes, and eventually deposit them on the surface of Mars. In a few years' time, scientists will send another craft to Mars, which will pick up these samples and return them to Earth.
While it is on the planet, the rover is also conducting an array of other scientific tests. It has taken with it a little helicopter, Ingenuity, which has already conducted the first powered flight on another planet.
Perseverance will also be used to test technologies to help pave the way for future human exploration of Mars. This will involve seeing if it is possible to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, which is 96% carbon dioxide. The production of oxygen will be key if humans are ever to visit the red planet.