While the arrival of the Perseverance probe had been a new proof of NASA’s supremacy in the world of aerospace. The flights of the small helicopter Ingenuity had been a major technological achievement, becoming the first human object to fly on a planet other than ours.
Since then, the world had gone its way, NASA had communicated less about the mission which seemed to have found its cruising speed. These last days it is nevertheless returned on the front of the scene, Perseverance was indeed going to realize the first collection of samples of the Martian ground.
An important step for NASA which plans to enclose these tiny pieces of rock in small tubes, similar to test tubes, which will return to Earth in several years, when a next mission will be in charge of their collection and their return to the blue planet.
Rock collection tube © NASA
A risky rock collection?
The first step in this very long-term project for NASA was the collection of Martian rocks, an experiment that is not unprecedented for the American space agency, but which always involves its share of unknowns. The main problem with Mars is that our red “neighbor” is not so close to us, it is rather far.
So far away from Earth that it takes eight minutes for information to travel through the vacuum of space between the two planets to reach the millions of kilometres that separate Earth and Mars. This travel time makes all the robot’s operations very time-consuming. We have to send an initial message, asking it to move, for example, and then wait eight minutes for it to respond, and then eight minutes later, the information comes back to us: the robot has moved half a metre, hurray!
If a mission as simple as moving a robot takes so long, it is obvious that NASA is dreading the moment when the rover will have to collect pieces of rock on Mars. The mission, which consists of hundreds of steps, takes hours, and at any moment, an unforeseen event can turn everything upside down.
A first failure
That’s what happened in early August when NASA engineers were gathered at the of the agency to follow the evolution of this first collection. If during the manipulation everything seemed to work in the heart of the Jezero crater, the result is more than disappointing. The small test tube is empty, the collected rocks were lost on the way, but for the moment, it is impossible to know when the mission failed.
In a statement released late Friday night, the U.S. space agency confessed to its failure. The last step of the collection process consists of placing a probe inside the tube, to check the level of material present inside the tube. But unfortunately “the probe did not meet the expected resistance”, said Jessica Samuels, surface mission manager for Perseverance at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (a NASA branch).
This first failure does not, however, call into question the entire Perseverance mission, which was close to perfection. The American probe had indeed managed to surprise its own designers on several points, including the small flying drone Ingenuity, whose mission was extended by NASA after the success of its first flights.