It's been quite an eventful year for NASA's Perseverance rover.
The car-size robot and its little partner, the Ingenuity helicopter, launched toward the Red Planet one year ago today (July 30) and touched down inside the 28-mile-wide (45 kilometers) Jezero Crater on Feb. 18.
Six weeks after landing, Ingenuity deployed from Perseverance's belly and began a monthlong technology-demonstrating flight campaign, which the rover supported and documented. The 4-pound (1.8 kilograms) chopper performed so well that NASA extended its mission, and Ingenuity now has 10 Red Planet flights (and counting) under its belt.
Meanwhile, Perseverance recently wrapped up its Ingenuity-shepherding work and began focusing in earnest on its own science mission. That mission features two main tasks: hunting for signs of ancient life in Jezero, which hosted a lake and river delta long ago, and collecting and caching dozens of samples.
The pristine Mars material that Perseverance packs away will be brought to Earth by a joint NASA-European Space Agency campaign, perhaps as early as 2031. Scientists in labs around the world will then pore over the samples, looking for evidence of Mars life and clues about the Red Planet's history and evolution.
Perseverance is now gearing up to collect the very first of these samples. The rover is scouting out targets in a geologically interesting part of Jezero that the mission team calls "Crater Floor Fractured Rough."
"My first rock sampling location is just ahead. This spot will be my 'office' for the next week or two," Perseverance team members wrote Thursday (July 29) in a Twitter post that featured a photo of its current environs.
The coming sample snag will be an involved affair. Perseverance will study its chosen target in detail with a variety of instruments before actually collecting material, in a multistep process that will take about 11 days from start to finish.
"Not every sample Perseverance is collecting will be done in the quest for ancient life, and we don’t expect this first sample to provide definitive proof one way or the other," Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in a statement last week.
"While the rocks located in this geologic unit are not great time capsules for organics, we believe they have been around since the formation of Jezero Crater and incredibly valuable to fill gaps in our geologic understanding of this region — things we’ll desperately need to know if we find life once existed on Mars," Farley said.
There will be some spaceflight fireworks tonight to help celebrate Perseverance's launch anniversary: Europe's Ariane 5 rocket will launch two communications satellites from French Guiana at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), if all goes according to plan.
There was supposed to be another high-profile liftoff today as well. Boeing's Starliner capsule was scheduled to launch toward the International Space Station on a crucial uncrewed test flight this afternoon. But problems caused by unplanned thruster firings of Russia's newly arrived Nauka space station module have pushed Starliner's flight into next week.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.