NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission will collect the first rock samples from another planet to bring back to Earth. But instead of using astronauts, the Perseverance rover will use the most complex mechanism ever sent into space, the Sample Caching System.
Apollo 11 astronauts brought collected and brought back Moon rocks, but using the Sample Caching System is an entirely different task. The 3-in-1 robot is being controlled on the Martian surface from engineers and scientists here on Earth.
“While you cannot help but marvel at what was achieved back in the days of Apollo, they did have one thing going for them we don’t: boots on the ground,” said Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “For us to collect the first samples of Mars for return to Earth, in place of two astronauts we have three robots that have to work with the precision of a Swiss watch.”
It has taken seven years to get the system designed, manufactured, and then integrated into Perseverance. There are two versions of the Sample Caching System: an engineering test model that will stay here on Earth and the flight model that will travel to Mars.
“The engineering model is identical in every way possible to the flight model, and it’s our job to try to break it,” said Kelly Palm, the Sample Caching System integration engineer and Mars 2020 test lead at JPL. “We do that because we would rather see things wear out or break on Earth than on Mars. So we put the engineering test model through its paces to inform our use of its flight twin on Mars.”
To that end, the team uses different rocks to simulate types of terrain. They drill them from various angles to anticipate any imaginable situation the rover could be in where the science team might want to gather a sample.
“Every once in a while, I have to take a minute and contemplate what we are doing,” said Palm. “Just a few years ago I was in college. Now I am working on the system that will be responsible for collecting the first samples from another planet for return to Earth. That is pretty awesome.”
Perseverance is a robotic scientist weighing about 2,260 pounds (1,025 kilograms). The rover’s astrobiology mission will search for signs of past microbial life. It will characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. No matter what day Perseverance lifts off during its July 17-Aug. 11 launch period, it will land at Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.