Neither dust nor wind nor the darkness of the night will disturb new caches of precious Martian samples on the Red Planet.
This month, NASA’s Perseverance rover dropped caches of lightsaber-shaped material on Mars to wait as a backup for a future sample-return mission. Perseverance collects two samples at each site and carries with it one collection. If the rover cannot carry the samples in its belly to a waiting spacecraft, two helicopters will load the spare surface tubes on the return rocket instead in the 2030s.
The joint NASA-Europe epic mission will allow researchers on Earth to examine tube samples for signatures of life. Because the fetch mission is not expected to land until 2030, officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said on Twitter that they’ve heard public concerns about winds or dust damaging tubes, or making it difficult to retrieve bunkers.
“My team is not worried,” the official Perseverance account chirp (Opens in a new tab) 23, along with a series of clues explaining why the tubes didn’t go far—and how NASA follows their filing sites as the ultimate backup.
Related: 12 stunning photos from Perseverance’s first year on Mars
Unlike the fictional strong windstorm depicted at the beginning of the movie “The Martian” (2015), the Red Planet has light gusts of wind. With its thin atmosphere only one-hundredth of Earth’s pressure at sea level, Martian winds are largely limited to picking up fine grains of sand.
The Perseverance account tweeted: “The wind here can pick up speed, but it doesn’t pick up much. *Think fast, but not strong.” In practical terms, winds are not a threat to nuclear-powered missions such as Perseverance. The calculation noted that NASA’s Curiosity rover, for example, is still operating after 10 years on Mars with a thin layer of dust covering the machinery.
However, dust covering solar panels (such as NASA’s recent Mars Insight lander mission) could pose a long-term threat to exploration, as it slowly chokes off the solar energy supply—absent a fortunate windstorm. “I marked the final end of more than one solar-powered explorer,” a Twitter thread noted about the dust.
Related: Can we save Mars robots from death by dust?
How about something smaller, sitting low on the roof? See the ribbon cable leading to the @NASAInSight seismometer? Four years later: a thin layer of dust, but it’s easy to spot. (The pile of dirt you see on top of part of it is only there because InSight put it there on purpose.) pic.twitter.com/UdpHVY18eADecember 23, 2022
Even for tubes that lie low on the surface, NASA expects them to be easy to spot based on examples like old footage from InSight. After four years on the surface of the Red Planet, the cables from InSight admittedly were dusty, but still recognizable.
“Not only do we expect not to cover the sample tubes,” the Perseverance account tweeted alongside the map, but I also carefully document exactly where I put them. So having to come back to it again later shouldn’t be a problem.”
The backup mission is currently expected to arrive in nine years, or around 2031. Launch opportunities between Earth and Mars appear about every two years, which leaves many chances to send a mission there before 2040—assuming funding for a sample return mission is valid and Technology development returns to planning.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (Opens in a new tab)? (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @tweet (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @tweet (Opens in a new tab) or Facebook (Opens in a new tab).
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