Testing rocks on Earth to help NASA's Perseverance work on Mars

Testing Rocks on Earth to Help NASA's Perseverance Work on Mars
Engineers working with NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover set up this test area at JPL to practice drilling into crumbly rocks using a duplicate of the rover’s rock-coring drill. Perseverance’s first sample collapsed into powder rather than remaining intact, prompting a test campaign. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When NASA's Perseverance Mars rover tried to collect its first rock core sample last August, the outcome presented a puzzle for the mission team: The rover's sample tube came up empty. But why?

Not long after, Perseverance successfully gathered a sample the size of a piece of chalk from a different rock. The team concluded that the first rock they had chosen was so crumbly that the rover's percussive drill likely pulverized it.

But engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the mission, want to understand why that first sample, nicknamed "Roubion," turned to dust. The mission's scientists and engineers had run extensive test campaigns on dozens of rock types prior to launch, but they hadn't seen any react exactly like Roubion. So a new test campaign was started—one that would include a field trip, a duplicate of Perseverance's drill, and JPL's unique Extraterrestrial Materials Simulation Lab.

Remembering Roubion

Re-creating the unique physical properties of Roubion would be key to the test campaign.

"Of the rocks we've seen, Roubion had the most evidence of interaction with ," said Ken Farley of Caltech, Perseverance's project scientist. "That's why it fell apart."

Get the latest on the rest of NASA’s Mars fleet with the Mars Report. The new installment focuses on the Red Planet’s recent dust storm. Watch how the agency’s orbiters supported the InSight lander as its power plunged during the January event. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Rocks altered by water can be more susceptible to falling apart; they're also highly valuable to Perseverance's scientists. Water is one of the keys to life—at least on Earth—which is why Perseverance is exploring Jezero Crater. Billions of years ago, Jezero contained a river-fed lake, making it an ideal spot to look for signs of ancient microscopic life now. Perseverance is collecting samples that future missions could bring back to Earth to be studied in labs with powerful equipment too large to be sent to Mars.

Field trip

To find Roubion stand-ins, a handful of rover team members was granted permission to hunt rocks in the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, a two-hour drive from JPL. The team was searching for rocks that filled a geological sweet spot: Weathered enough to be Roubion-like, but not so fragile that they would fall apart at the slightest touch. They eventually selected a half-dozen rocks.

"It was very physical work," said JPL's Louise Jandura, chief engineer for sampling and caching, who has been leading the test campaign. "We were chipping away with rock hammers and crowbars. A couple rocks were big enough that it took all five of us holding on to a stretched-out canvas to get it into the bed of our truck."

Next step: Testing at JPL. One of the places where that happens is the Extraterrestrial Materials Simulation Lab, a kind of service center that prepares materials for testing elsewhere at JPL.

Testing rocks on Earth to help NASA's Perseverance work on Mars
An aerial drone captured this view of members of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover team in the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve in Southern California as they searched for crumbly rocks for a test campaign. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A rock superstore

The low-slung building sits on a hillside above the Mars Yard. Barrels out front contain reddish dust called Mojave Mars Simulant, a special recipe for recreating the messy conditions rovers travel in. Piles of rocks—some peppered with drill holes—are strewn about a forbidding industrial saw near the entrance. In back stands a concrete bunker with rock bins labeled with names that sound like Mad Libs for geologists: Old Dutch Pumice, China Ranch Gypsum, Bishop Tuff.

"I like to say we do artisanal selection and preparation of materials," said Sarah Yearicks, a mechanical engineer who leads the lab. "Testing them is part manufacturing and part mad science."

Yearicks is one of the people who picked out the rocks at the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve excursion. For the testing on Roubion-like rocks, Yearicks's team worked with a construction-grade drill—not a coring drill—along with other tools, while Jandura's team used a "flight-like" duplicate of Perseverance's drill.The teams passed the rock samples back and forth, testing them in different ways.

Put to the test

Jandura's team ran their flight-like drill a few millimeters at a time, stopping to check that a core was still forming; if it had crumbled, they'd look at variables that might be the cause. For instance, the engineers tweaked the drill's rate of percussion and the weight placed on its bit. They also tried drilling into the horizontally instead of vertically, in case the build-up of debris was a factor.

Testing rocks on Earth to help NASA's Perseverance work on Mars
This drill is a duplicate of the one aboard NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. It was used in a test campaign to learn how crumbly rocks respond to the drill. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For every adjustment they made, it seemed, a new wrinkle would emerge. One was that fragile samples can still resist the percussive drill. When Jandura's team reduced the force of percussion to avoid powderizing the sample, the drill bit couldn't penetrate the surface. But choosing a spot that holds up to stronger percussion means choosing one that likely interacted less with water.

Perseverance has so far captured six samples from highly weathered, water-altered rocks, and the team knows it's capable of many more. But their experience with Roubion has prepared them for some of the extremes Mars will throw at Perseverance in the future. If they find more rocks like Roubion, the Extraterrestrial Materials Simulation Lab will be ready with its menagerie of Mars-worthy materials.

More information: For more about Perseverance: mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/ and nasa.gov/perseverance

Citation: Testing rocks on Earth to help NASA's Perseverance work on Mars (2022, February 14) retrieved 17 April 2024 from https://phys.org/news/2022-02-earth-nasa-perseverance-mars.html
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