NASA’s Perseverance rover bottled up two samples of the Martian surface on December 2 and December 6, according to the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Unlike the previous samples collected by perseverance, which consisted of rock core, these new samples were taken from a pile of wind-blown sand and dust from a small “dune.” One of these two samples will be considered for deposition on the Martian surface so that they can be returned as part of the Mars Sample Return campaign.
Scientists will study Martian samples returned to Earth with powerful scientific equipment to look for signs of ancient microbial life. While most of the samples collected will be rock, researchers also want to study Martian regolith (dust.) Not only will it help them learn about geological processes on the red planet but it will also help mitigate against challenges that astronauts will face when we send a mission to Mars.
The latest dust samples were collected using a drill on Perseverance’s robotic arm but it used a special drill bit that looks like a spike with small holes at one end to collect loose material. “Everything we learn about the size, shape, and chemistry of regolith grains helps us design and test better tools for future missions,” said NASA’s Iona Tirona in a press statement.
Studying this regolith can help NASA engineers design future Mars missions as well as the equipment required for it. This regolith is capable of damaging both spacecraft and science instruments. It can jam sensitive components of instruments and slow down rovers on the surface.
Apart from the danger it poses to equipment, it can also cause harm to astronauts. During the Apollo missions, it was found that the regolith on the lunar surface was sharp enough to tear microscopic holes in spacesuits. The Martian surface is known to contain perchlorate, a toxic chemical that could threaten astronauts’ health if large amounts are inhaled or ingested.
“If we have a more permanent presence on Mars, we need to know how the dust and regolith will interact with our spacecraft and habitats. Some of those dust grains could be as fine as cigarette smoke, and could get into an astronaut’s breathing apparatus. We want a fuller picture of which materials would be harmful to our explorers, whether they’re human or robotic,” said Perseverance team member Erin Gibbons in a press statement.
Apart from helping mitigate health and safety concerns, Martian regolith can also hold the key to understanding more about the red planet’s geology. When observed with a microscope, the dust could reveal a “kaleidoscope of grains” of different shapes and colours. According to JPL, each of these would be like a jigsaw puzzle piece, put together by wind and water over billions of years.