Mars Perseverance rover shakes loose troublesome pebbles

NASA’s Perseverance rover made history last year when it collected a sample of Mars rock for the first time. But after several successful attempts to collect further samples, the rover ran into a problem late in December when pebbles became lodged inside the machinery for collecting samples. Now, NASA has shared an update on progress on dislodging the pebbles, and the signs are looking good for the rover’s continuing mission.

The problem arose when Perseverance went to make its seventh sample collection. Everything went fine with the rover drilling into the rock and capturing a sample in a tube. But when it went to put the tube into the carousel inside its chassis, sensors detected unusual resistance. It turned out some pebbles had likely fallen out of the sample tube and into the carousel, gumming it up. The team decided to tip out the sample and rotate the carousel to try to dislodge the pebbles.

An animated GIF depicts the Martian surface below the Perseverance rover, showing the results of the January 15, 2022, percussive drill test to clear cored-rock fragments from one of the rover’s sample tubes. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Having made these recovery steps, cameras on the rover show that two of the pebbles have been dislodged successfully. In a mission update, NASA confirmed that the upper two pebbles had been ejected by rotating the bit carousel. There are still two pebbles remaining below the carousel, but tests performed on Earth suggest that these won’t pose a significant problem for future sample collection.  The team also used the rover’s robotic arm and its rotary-percussive drill to dump the remaining rocks in the original sample tube back onto the Martian surface, making space for a full sample to be collected at a later date.

From here, the team will continue testing to make sure the rover can operate with the two pebbles still inside. “The team is still reviewing the data and discussing next steps,” Rick Welch, Deputy Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote in an update. “Like all Mars missions, we’ve had some unexpected challenges. Each time, the team and our rover have risen to the occasion. We expect the same result this time – by taking incremental steps, analyzing results, and then moving on, we plan to fully resolve this challenge and get back to exploration and sampling at Jezero Crater.”

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