Atmospheric Time Capsules: Why Scientists Are Intrigued by Air in NASA’s Mars Sample Tubes

Mars 2020 Rover Sample Return Tubes

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover stores rock and soil samples in sealed tubes on the planet’s surface for future missions to retrieve, as seen in this illustration. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Tucked away with each rock and soil sample collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover is a potential boon for atmospheric scientists.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is collecting samples on Mars, including rock cores and atmospheric gases, to be eventually returned to Earth. These samples may provide critical insights into the Martian atmosphere and its evolution, possibly revealing the presence of microbial life billions of years ago. The gas samples, in particular, could offer valuable data on trace gases and the planet’s ancient climate, drawing parallels with Earth’s own atmospheric history and aiding future manned missions to Mars.

Mars Sample Collection

With every rock core NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover seals in its titanium sample tubes, atmospheric scientists get a little more excited. These samples are being gathered for eventual delivery to Earth as part of the Mars Sample Return campaign, with twenty-four taken so far.

Most of those samples consist of rock cores or regolith (broken rock and dust) that might reveal important information about the history of the planet and whether microbial life was present billions of years ago. But some scientists are just as thrilled at the prospect of studying the “headspace,” or air in the extra room around the rocky material, in the tubes.

They want to learn more about the Martian atmosphere, which is composed mostly of carbon dioxide but could also include trace amounts of other gases that may have been around since the planet’s formation.

Perseverance Mars Rover Sample Headspace

This image shows a rock core about the size of a piece of chalk in a sample tube housed within the drill of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Once the rover seals the tube, air will be trapped in the extra space in the tube — seen here in the small gap (called “headspace”) above the rock. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Insights From Martian Headspace

“The air samples from Mars would tell us not just about the current climate and atmosphere, but how it’s changed over time,” said Brandi Carrier, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. “It will help us understand how climates different from our own evolve.”

Among the samples that could be brought to Earth is one tube filled solely with gas deposited on the Martian surface as part of a sample depot. But far more of the gas in the rover’s collection is within the headspace of rock samples. These are unique because the gas will be interacting with rocky material inside the tubes for years before the samples can be opened and analyzed in laboratories on Earth. What scientists glean from them will lend insight into how much water vapor hovers near the Martian surface, one factor that determines why ice forms where it does on the planet and how Mars’ water cycle has evolved over time.

Perseverance Mars Rover Sealed Sample Tube

A sealed tube containing a sample of the Martian surface collected by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is seen here, after being deposited with other tubes in a “sample depot.” Other filled sample tubes are stored within the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Comparing Trace Gases and Ancient Atmospheres

Scientists also want a better understanding of trace gases in the air on Mars. Most scientifically tantalizing would be the detection of noble gases (such as neon, argon, and xenon), which are so nonreactive that they may have been around, unchanged in the atmosphere, since forming billions of years ago. If captured, those gases could reveal whether Mars started with an atmosphere. (Ancient Mars had a much thicker atmosphere than it does today, but scientists aren’t sure whether it was always there or whether it developed later). There are also big questions about how the planet’s ancient atmosphere compared with early Earth’s.

The headspace would additionally provide a chance to assess the size and toxicity of dust particles — information that will help future astronauts on Mars.

“The gas samples have a lot to offer Mars scientists,” said Justin Simon, a geochemist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, who is part of a group of over a dozen international experts that helps decide which samples the rover should collect. “Even scientists who don’t study Mars would be interested because it will shed light on how planets form and evolve.”

Apollo’s Air Samples

In 2021, a group of planetary researchers, including scientists from NASA, studied the air brought back from the Moon in a steel container by Apollo 17 astronauts some 50 years earlier.

“People think of the Moon as airless, but it has a very tenuous atmosphere that interacts with the lunar surface rocks over time,” said Simon, who studies a variety of planetary samples at Johnson. “That includes noble gases leaking out of the Moon’s interior and collecting at the lunar surface.”

Laboratory Techniques for Gas Analysis

The way Simon’s team extracted the gas for study is similar to what could be done with Perseverance’s air samples. First, they put the previously unopened container into an airtight enclosure. Then they pierced the steel with a needle to extract the gas into a cold trap — essentially a U-shaped pipe that extends into a liquid, like nitrogen, with a low freezing point. By changing the temperature of the liquid, scientists captured some of the gases with lower freezing points at the bottom of the cold trap.

“There’s maybe 25 labs in the world that manipulate gas in this way,” Simon said. Besides being used to study the origin of planetary materials, this approach can be applied to gases from hot springs and those emitted from the walls of active volcanoes, he added.

Of course, those sources provide much more gas than Perseverance has in its sample tubes. But if a single tube doesn’t carry enough gas for a particular experiment, Mars scientists could combine gases from multiple tubes to get a larger aggregate sample — one more way the headspace offers a bonus opportunity for science.

NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover

NASA’s Perseverance rover, part of the Mars 2020 mission, is a sophisticated mobile laboratory designed to explore the surface of Mars. Launched on July 30, 2020, and landing on Mars on February 18, 2021, in the Jezero Crater, Perseverance has a primary mission to search for signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to Earth.

1 Comment on "Atmospheric Time Capsules: Why Scientists Are Intrigued by Air in NASA’s Mars Sample Tubes"

  1. “But if a single tube doesn’t carry enough gas for a particular experiment, Mars scientists could combine gases from multiple tubes to get a larger aggregate sample…”

    In my opinion this would take away another opportunity – to analyze changes in the atmospheric composition over time. MRO has already shown intriguing atmospheric changes that are diurnal and seasonal (eg. methane levels). Since we know the date stamp each sample was taken, if we analyze each sample individually, we could get a clear idea of those changes and what could be causing them.

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