NASA's Perseverance rover has begun drilling into the surface of Mars and will collect rock samples to be picked up by future missions for analysis by scientists on Earth.
The US space agency published images on Friday night of a small mound with a hole in its center next to the rover -- the first ever dug into the Red Planet by a robot. "Sample collection has begun!" tweeted Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate.
The drill hole is the first step of a sampling process that is expected to take about 11 days, with the aim of looking for signs of ancient microbial life that may have been preserved in ancient lakebed deposits, an AFP report explains.
Scientists also hope to better understand the Martian geology. The mission took off from Florida a little over a year ago and Perseverance, which is the size of a large family car, landed on February 18 in the Jezero Crater.
Scientists believe the crater contained a deep lake 3.5 billion years ago, where the conditions may have been able to support extraterrestrial life.
It is possible the crater was home to a river that flowed into a lake, depositing sediment in a delta which is shaped like a fan. The rover will collect samples from the crater and prepare them for a possible round trip back to earth for detailed analysis. Using a drill to collect core samples of Martian rock and soil, Perseverance will then store them in sealed tubes for pickup by a future mission.
NASA plans a mission to bring around 30 samples back to Earth in the 2030s, to be analyzed by instruments that are much more sophisticated than those that can be brought to Mars at present.
Perseverance weighs close to a ton -- that’s roughly the size of an SUV. It is the largest and most sophisticated robotic explorer sent to Mars. Apart from multiple cameras that will be its eyes on the uncertain Martian terrain, the rover is also equipped with different scientific instruments that will not only look for biosignatures but test technologies that would help sustain human presence on Mars in the future.
The rover is also equipped with its own oxygen-producing facilities. Earlier this year, Recently, the toaster-sized instrument dubbed MOXIE, short for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, produced about 5 grams of oxygen, equivalent to roughly 10 minutes' worth of breathing for an astronaut, according to a Nasa statement.
As a Reuters report on the development explains, the feat marked the first experimental extraction of a natural resources from the environment of another planet for direct use by humans.