Neither dust, nor wind, nor the darkness of the night will disturb the new caches of precious Mars samples on the Red Planet.
This month, NASA’s Perseverance rover dropped caches of lightsaber-shaped material on the surface of Mars to wait as backup for a future sample-return mission. Perseverance collects two samples from each location and takes one set with him. If the rover can’t transport the samples in its belly to a waiting spacecraft itself, two recovery helicopters will transport the spare surface tubes to the rocket back in the 2030s instead.
The epic joint NASA-Europe mission will allow researchers on Earth to examine tube samples for signs of life. Given that the recovery mission isn’t expected to land until the 2030s, however, officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said on Twitter that they’ve heard public concerns about wind or dust hurting the tubes or making caches difficult to retrieve.
“My team is not worried”, the official account of Perseverance tweeted (opens in a new tab) December 23, along with a series of evidence showing why the tubes won’t travel far – and how NASA tracks their dump locations as the ultimate backup.
Related: 12 stunning photos of the Perseverance rover’s first year on Mars
Unlike the fictional powerful windstorm depicted at the start of “The Martian” (2015), the Red Planet has gentle gusts. Due to its thin atmosphere at just one-hundredth the pressure of Earth at sea level, Mars’ wind is largely limited to picking up grains of fine sand.
“The winds here can pick up *speed*, but they don’t pick up much *stuff*. Think fast, but not hard,” the Perseverance account tweeted. Concretely, the winds are not the threat for nuclear-powered missions like Perseverance. NASA’s Curiosity rover, for example, is still operating after 10 Earth years on Mars with only a thin layer of dust covering the machinery, the report says.
That said, dust covering solar arrays (such as NASA’s recently concluded InSight Mars lander mission) can pose a long-term threat to exploration, as they slowly choke off the solar power supply – by the absence of a lucky gust of wind. “This means the eventual end of more than one solar-powered explorer,” the Twitter thread noted about Dust.
Related: Can we save the robots of Mars from death by dust?
What about something smaller, sitting low on the surface? See that ribbon cable leading to @NASAInSight’s seismometer? After four years: a thin layer of dust, but easy to spot. (The pile of dirt you see on one part is only there because InSight deliberately put it there.) pic.twitter.com/UdpHVY18eADecember 23, 2022
Even for tubes that sit low on the surface, NASA expects them to be “easy to spot” based on examples such as older InSight images. After four terrestrial years on the soil of the red planet, the cables of InSight were certainly dusty, but still recognizable.
“Not only do we expect the sample tubes to be uncovered,” the Perseverance account tweeted alongside a map, “but I also document very carefully exactly where I dropped them. later shouldn’t be a problem.”
The backup mission is currently expected to arrive in nine years, around 2031. Launch opportunities between Earth and Mars present themselves approximately every two years, giving several chances to send a mission there before 2040 – assuming that funding for the sample return mission is maintained and technology development proceeds as planned.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) or Facebook (opens in a new tab).