NASA confirmed on Monday that its Perseverance Mars rover has successfully collected its first rock sample for scientists to examine when a future mission brings it back to Earth.
“I got it!” the space agency tweeted, alongside a photograph of a rock core slightly thicker than a pencil inside a sample tube.
The sample was collected on Sept. 1, but NASA was initially unsure whether the rover had successfully handled its precious cargo, because the initial images taken in low light were unclear.
After taking a new photo so mission control could check its contents, Perseverance transferred the tube into the rover for further measurements and imaging, and then hermetically sealed the container.
“This is an important achievement and I can’t wait to see the incredible discoveries produced by Perseverance and our team,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of science, likened the achievement to the first rock samples taken from the Moon, which are still invaluable to researchers today.
Perseverance’s sampling and caching system is the most complex mechanism ever sent to space, with more than 3,000 pieces.
His first target was a paste-sized rock dubbed “Rochette” on a ridge line that is particularly interesting from a geological point of view, as it contains ancient layers of exposed rock.
Perseverance uses a drill and a hollow core drill at the end of its 2 meter long robotic arm to extract samples.
After removing the core from the rock, the rover vibrated the drill and tube for one second, five times apart.
This procedure is called “Bang to Ingest” and is intended to clean the edge of the tube of waste material and make the sample slide down the tube.
Perseverance landed on an ancient lake bed called the Jezero Crater in February, on a mission to look for signs of ancient microbial life using an array of sophisticated instruments mounted on its tower.
It is also trying to better characterize the Red Planet’s previous geology and climate.
The first part of the rover’s scientific mission, which will last hundreds of suns or Martian days, will be completed when it returns to its landing site.
By then, it will have covered somewhere between 1.6 and 3.1 miles (2.5 and five kilometers) and may have filled up to eight of its 43 sample tubes.
It will then travel to the Jezero Crater Delta region, which can be rich in clay minerals. On Earth, these minerals can preserve fossilized signs of ancient microscopic life.
Eventually, NASA wants to send back the samples collected by the rover on a joint mission with the European Space Agency, sometime in the 2030s.
His first attempt to collect a sample in August failed because the rock was too brittle to resist the robot’s drill.