The Perseverance Rover got two samples of dust and sand from a small, windblown, dune-like structure on Mars. One of these samples might return to Earth on a sample return mission that is currently being built in Europe.
The sample return mission is expected to launch later this decade. An orbiter will launch as early as 2027 and a lander is scheduled to launch in 2028. The samples will be returned as early as 2033.
The samples can be tested in sophisticated laboratories around the world and can answer questions about Mars that have proven challenging to answer with the instruments that can be sent on Mars probes. Scientists are especially curious about possible past or present microbial life on Mars.
The latest samples could help with future mission planning.
The regolith samples can help with planning future crewed and robotic missions to Mars, which can be rough on landers and rovers. The regolith has torn up rovers’ wheels. The fine dust can get into machinery, damage electronics, and get blown up into massive planet-wide dust storms. Sand traps are also a hazard. Even if a rover survives all these hazards long enough to outlast even its extended warranty, the electronics version of old age can set in.
The return of regolith and rock samples can help with the design of instruments on future Mars landers and rovers. The drill bit that Perseverance uses to take samples for possible return to Earth was designed and tested using Mojave Mars Simulant, a simulation of Mars regolith made using ground volcanic rock that was designed using information from images and data from past missions.
“Everything we learn about the size, shape, and chemistry of regolith grains helps us design and test better tools for future missions,” said Iona Tirona, the Perseverance mission leader for the Jet Propusion Laboratory.
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The Apollo lunar landing missions showed that the sharp lunar regolith can cut small holes in EVA suits. The situation luckily did not prove dangerous for the Apollo astronauts even though it may have been a trifle difficult to keep one’s balance on the Moon, as seen in the below two videos.
From Apollo 16:
And Apollo 17:
Martian regolith also contains perchlorates, which are often used to make cleaning solutions on Earth. They can be toxic if inhaled and can pose a problem if the particles are small enough to get into a spacesuit’s breathing apparatus.
“We want a fuller picture of which materials would be harmful to our explorers, whether they’re human or robotic,” said Erin Gibbons, a doctorate student who works with the Perseverance team on the SuperCam instrument.
Besides helping collect data that will help with future mission planning, Perseverance collects data on geology, climate, and possible ancient microbial life. Its companion, the helicopter-like drone called Ingenuity, became the first flying machine to fly through Mars’ thin atmosphere. Similar helicopter drones will help collect the samples that Perseverance collects and caches in safe places on Mars.