Mars Update: Percy Comes Up Empty, Ingenuity Flying High, Zhurong Pushing Forward

Mars Update: Percy Comes Up Empty, Ingenuity Flying High, Zhurong Pushing Forward

NASA’s Perseverance rover came up empty this week in its first attempt to collect a sample of Mars, but its companion, the Ingenuity helicopter, continues to fly high, making its 11th trip. Mars is a busy place these days. Two more rovers, NASA’s Curiosity and China’s Zhurong, are exploring other parts of the planet while NASA’s InSight lander gathers data about Mars’ inner depths.

NASA’s newest rover, affectionately known as Percy, is studying Jezero Crater looking for signs of ancient life. One of its major tasks is collecting samples that will be picked up by a later mission and returned to Earth for study.

The Sampling and Caching System drills a hole into a rock using a hollow coring bit with a sample tube and a percussive drill. Once the core sample is in the tube, the bit is extracted and a robotic arm moves it to other equipment on the rover where a probe is inserted to measure the amount of material obtained. The sample tube then is sealed and deposited on the surface where another rover planned for launch later this decade will retrieve it.

Scientists were excited when the first hole was drilled yesterday and eagerly awaited news of how much material was acquired.

Alas, the probe inserted to measure the volume of rock inside the tube “did not encounter the expected resistance that would be there if a sample were inside the tube,” said Jessica Samuels, Surface Mission Manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). In short, the tube is empty.

This enhanced-color image from the Mastcam-Z instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover shows a sample tube inside the coring bit after the Aug. 6, 2021, coring activity was completed. The bronze-colored outer-ring is the coring bit. The lighter-colored inner-ring is the open end of the sample tube. A portion of the tube’s serial number – 233 – can be seen on the left side of tube’s wall. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jennifer Trosper, JPL’s project manager for Perseverance, reports that “initial thinking is that the empty tube is more likely the result of the rock target not reacting the way we expected during coring, and less likely a hardware issue,” but they do not have an answer yet.  “I have been on every Mars rover mission since the beginning, and this planet is always teaching us what we don’t know about it,” Trosper added. “One thing I’ve found is, it’s not unusual to have complications during complex, first-time activities.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, is philosophical about it. “”While this is not the ‘hole-in-one’ we hoped for, there is always risk with breaking new ground.”

Ingenuity’s continued success is a countervailing bright spot. A technology demonstration project that was only intended to make five flights over one month, Ingenuity keeps on showing what it can do. On August 4, it made its 11th flight, traveling 380 meters in 130.9 seconds.

Ingenuity Flight Log. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance has traveled 1.01 miles (1.63 kilometers) from its landing site so far. Ingenuity is scouting ahead, flying over terrain that might be difficult for the rover.  JPL has an interactive map showing where the two are located on the Martian surface.

Elsewhere on Mars, three other spacecraft are working hard: NASA’s Curiosity rover and InSight lander, and China’s Tianwen-1/Zhurong combination lander and rover.

The Planetary Society has a handy map showing the locations of all successful landers and rovers. (The pointed end of the triangle marks the spot.) All were launched by NASA except Zhurong. The Viking 1 and 2 landers were first, arriving in 1976, then Mars Pathfiner/Sojourner (lander/rover) in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004, Phoenix lander in 2008, Curiosity rover in 2012, InSight lander in 2018, and Perseverance/Ingenuity (rover/helicopter) and Tianwen-1/Zhurong in 2021.

Location of all Mars landers/rovers that operated successfully. All except Tianwen-1/Zhurong are NASA’s. Curiosity, InSight, Perseverance/Ingenuity, and Tianwen-1/Zhurong are currently operational. Credit: The Planetary Society

Curiosity just celebrated its 9th anniversary on Mars and is exploring Gale Crater.  So far it has driven 16.3 miles (26.3 kilometers) and collected 32 drilled samples. Those are being analyzed by equipment on the rover and will not be returned to Earth like the samples collected by Perseverance.

InSight is one of the missions that proves Trosper’s point that Mars “is always teaching us what we don’t know about it.”  The mission’s goal is understanding the planet’s interior using a seismometer and a heat flow probe. But the soil at the landing site is completely different from what was expected and the probe, or “mole,” could not burrow in. After almost two years of trying, NASA and its partners at Germany’s DLR space agency gave up after getting the top of the mole just an inch or two (2-3 centimeters) instead of at least 10 feet (3 meters) into the ground. The seismometer is working fine, though, and three papers were just published using that data to analyze the depth and composition of the planet’s crust, mantle, and core.

China’s Zhurong arrived at Mars in February as part of the Tianwen-1 mission that includes an orbiter, lander and rover. The lander, also called Tianwen-1, descended to the surface in May and the Zhurong rover rolled off several days later. China is only the second country to successfully place a rover on Mars. China’s Xinhua news service just reported that the rover has traveled over 800 meters so far.

The image on the left shows the Tianwen-1 lander and Zhurong rover next to each other, taken by a camera deployed on the surface by Zhurong. The image on the right shows the lander with the ramp that Zhurong rolled down and tracks where it turned and began roving. It is similar to the landers/rovers China placed on the Moon, Chang’e-3/Yutu and Chang’e-4/Yutu-2. The latter is the first spacecraft to land on the far side of the Moon.

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