Mars Rover collects first samples for return to Earth

Tools attached to Perseverance and operated by mission specialists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles drilled a rock core slightly thicker than a pencil from an ancient Martian lake bed called the Jezero Crater, then hermetically sealed it in a titanium specimen tube inside the rover.

The feat, accomplished on Sept. 6 and initially announced by NASA the same day, marked the first such mineral sample obtained from the surface of another planet, according to the space agency.

The space agency plans to collect as many as 43 mineral samples over the next few months from the floor of Jerezo, a wide basin where scientists think water flowed and microbial life may have flourished billions of years ago.

The six-wheeled, SUV-sized vehicle is also expected to explore walls of sediment deposited at the foot of a remnant river delta once etched into a corner of the crater and considered a prime spot for study.

Mineral collection is the heart of the $2.7 billion Perseverance project.

Among the early findings from preliminary analysis of the samples was the presence of salt, NASA said.

"The presence of salt indicates that this rock was subject to water," Yulia Goreva, Perseverance Return Sample Investigation Scientist, said at the news conference.

"We can look at the composition and look for tiny inclusions such as ... liquid bubbles or bubble fluids inside the salt. That would actually give us a glimpse of the Jezero crater at the time when it was wet and was able to sustain an ancient Martian life," she said.

Two future missions to Mars, to be jointly conducted by NASA and the European Space Agency, are planned to retrieve those specimens in the next decade and return them to Earth, where astrobiologists will examine them for signs of tiny fossilized organisms.

Such fossils would represent the first conclusive proof that life has ever existed beyond Earth.

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