NASA's Mars rover Perseverance has collected its 10th tiny rock sample as it continues exploring the Red Planet looking for fragments of Martian soil that might harbor traces of past life, which a future mission might deliver to Earth.
NASA shared the image of the sample on Perseverance's Twitter account on Tuesday, July 12, with a comment that suggested the rover may have felt overlooked on the day of James Webb Space Telescope's grand image reveal.
"Big day for space science! From grand telescope views that #UnfoldTheUniverse, to extreme closeups of #SamplingMars, with rock cores barely the size of a pinky finger," the mission team tweeted. "I've now collected my 10th rock sample, seen here in the late afternoon Martian sun."
Perseverance recently expanded the scope of its tasks and started scouting for a convenient location where a possible future sample return mission could land. That location would not only offer a future craft a place to safely touchdown, but also provide a suitable environment to set up the first ever launchpad on a planet other than Earth.
The Mars Sample Return mission, proposed jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), could launch to the Red Planet in 2028 and pick up the samples prepared by Perseverance in Jezero Crater. From there, a small rocket known as the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) would bring the samples to an orbiter that can take them to Earth.
Perseverance, which landed on Mars in February 2021, carries 43 test tubes, 38 out of which are to be filled with samples. The rover uses a small drill on the end of its robotic arm to extract promising rock fragments.
Since there is only a limited number of tubes, the rover team carefully evaluates every location before drilling in order not to waste precious space on less promising rocks.
The rover, which filled its first tube in September 2021, is currently surveying an ancient river delta. Last week, the rover collected its ninth sample at that location. The rover's team hinted at the potential for harboring traces of past life of this particular site.
"Rock sample #9 is in the bag! (Well, in the tube, anyway.)," the rover team said in a tweet. "My team has waited years to get up close to this river delta and see what it might say about past life on Mars. This sample may well get a one-way ticket back to Earth in the future!"