Testing Terrestrial Rocks To Help NASA’s Perseverance Rover Work on Mars

Testing a ‘Roubion’-Like Rock

Testing a ‘Roubion’-Like Rock: 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

Using carefully selected terrestrial rocks, engineers try to figure out how to work with crumbly rocks like the one the rover encountered on its first sampling attempt.

Creating a Drill Hole in a Test Rock

Creating a Drill Hole in a Test Rock: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory performed tests on rocks such as this one to understand why the first attempt by the agency’s Perseverance rover resulted in a powderized sample. A duplicate of the rover’s drill attempted to create cores from crumbly rocks. 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. Answers remain elusive, but here’s a closer look at the process.


How Do Spacecraft Deal with Dust Storms on Mars? 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. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

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 water,” said Ken Farley of Caltech, Perseverance’s project scientist. “That’s why it fell apart.”

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.

Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve

Aerial Shot of Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve: 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

Field Trip

To find Roubion stand-ins, a handful of rover team members were 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.

JPL Rock Hunters

JPL Rock Hunters: Members of the JPL team that went searching for Mars-like rocks in the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve pose for a selfie. From left: Errin Dalshaug, Iona Brockie, Louise Jandura, Ken Farley, and Sarah Yearicks. 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 re-creating 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’ 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.

Close-Up of a Perseverance-Like Drill

Close-Up of a Perseverance-Like Drill: 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

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 rock horizontally instead of vertically, in case the build-up of debris was a factor.

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 About the Mission

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.

2 Comments on "Testing Terrestrial Rocks To Help NASA’s Perseverance Rover Work on Mars"

  1. Babu G. Ranganathan | February 15, 2022 at 8:41 am | Reply

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    POSSIBLY MILLIONS OF TONS OF VOLCANIC EARTH SOIL REACHED MARS (Newsweek)

    A Newsweek article of September 21, 1998, p.12 mentions the high possibility of Earth life on Mars because of millions of tons of Earth soil ejected into space from ancient volcanic explosions. “We think there’s about 7 million tons of earth soil sitting on Mars”, says USC scientist Kenneth Nealson. “You have to consider the possibility that if we find life on Mars, it could have come from the Earth” [Weingarten, T., Newsweek, September 21, 1998, p.12]. This may also explain why life forms may exist on Venus, again because they originated from Earth.

    In the Earth’s past there was powerful volcanic activity which could have easily spewed dirt and rocks containing microbes and life into outer space which not only could have eventually reached Mars but also ended up traveling in orbit through space that we now know as meteors, comets, and asteroids. This would mean life forms found in meteorites originated from Earth in the first place.

    Secular scientists have a different explanation from creationist scientists on the volcanic eruptions of the Earth’s past. Creation scientists believe, as Genesis teaches, that as the fountains of the deep were opened to release water for the world-wide flood the force of the eruptions could have indeed spewed great amounts of earth soil into space.

    Life could not have evolved. A partially evolved cell would quickly disintegrate under the effects of random forces of the environment, especially without the protection of a complete and fully functioning cell membrane. A partially evolved cell cannot wait millions of years for chance to make it complete and living! In fact, it couldn’t have even reached the partially evolved state.

    Having the right conditions and raw material for life do not mean that life can originate or arise by chance. Stanley Miller, in his famous experiment in 1953, showed that individual amino acids (the building blocks of life) could come into existence by chance. But, it’s not enough just to have amino acids. The various amino acids that make-up life must link together in a precise sequence, just like the letters in a sentence, to form functioning protein molecules. If they’re not in the right sequence the protein molecules won’t work. It has never been shown that various amino acids can bind together into a sequence by chance to form protein molecules. Even the simplest cell is made up of many millions of various protein molecules.

    The probability of just an average size protein molecule arising by chance is 10 to the 65th power. Mathematicians have said any event in the universe with odds of 10 to 50th power or greater is impossible! The late great British scientist Sir Frederick Hoyle calculated that the odds of even the simplest cell coming into existence by chance is 10 to the 40,000th power! How large is this? Consider that the total number of atoms in our universe is 10 to the 82nd power.
    Also, what many don’t realize is that Miller had a laboratory apparatus that shielded and protected the individual amino acids the moment they were formed, otherwise the amino acids would have quickly disintegrated and been destroyed in the mix of random energy and forces involved in Miller’s experiment.

    Miller’s experiment produced equally both left-handed and right-handed amino acids, but all living things strictly require only left-handed amino acids. If a right-handed amino acid gets into the chain the protein won’t work.

    There is no innate chemical tendency for the various amino acids to bond with one another in a sequence. Any one amino acid can just as easily bond with any other. The only reason at all for why the various amino acids bond with one another in a precise sequence in the cells of our bodies is because they’re directed to do so by an already existing sequence of molecules found in our genetic code.

    Of course, once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

    Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    * I have had the privilege of being recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who In The East” for my writings on religion and science, and I have given successful lectures (with question and answer time afterwards) defending creation from science before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities.

  2. Interesting.

    1.Coming back to Earth are we?

    2. I must have rocks in my head, but an obvious question to ask is , how did Rock Formation and weatherization Occur on planet Earth and over what duration of time! All kinds of Rocks. Including the hard kind (Like Diimonds !) AND also the Crumbly Kind we appear to have encountered on Mars)!. We also , need to figure out how dust forms on Earth, and compare dust storms on Earth and other Weather patterns on Earth with Weather Patters on Mars and Other Planetary bodies.

    3. We have materials of all types on earth. Do we have a understanding of the cmposition of matter on our own Planet?
    In Different Views.
    a. Elements which compose the Planet and how these have evolved , based on actual data analysis. Data never lies. If we have an understanding of the time dimension over which such materials and elements have formed and their stability (many are radioactive and are decomposing) it may be interesting data to have when we explore other extraplanetary objects like Moons, Planets like Mars and Asteroids etc..
    b. Many other Views of the Planet Earth can also be concieved and gathered….

    4. Coming back to Perseverence and its mission in collection of Rocks oon Mars. We need to broaden the vision and scope of the same and build a better Rover in the future with deep minig capabilities in all kinds of environment ,and not just collect rocks on the surface and a depth of a few meters. If you make it hardier and able to withsttand all kinds of environments, and equip it with planetary body hopping capability , after sending the data from one planetary body it could be sent to other planetqry bodies in the neighbourhood to send data from the next. Cost Effective and Economical.

    5. The inability to analyse the rocks , dust and other stuff on distant planetary bodies on site itself , as equipment is too large to send, is a cop-out. Don’t tell me NASA Scientists and Engineers have not heard of Minituarization. The Time tqken to Travel Physically to these places and bring back samples is poor from a strategic Information and Data gathering objective. The Scientific Community is interested in information and data which can be meaningfully interpreted. The same can be encoded and sent back to Spaceships rotating the Planetary body and also Earth at the speed of electromagnetic specturm. The Suns rays take eight minutes to reach Earth. It would be nice to build eploration equipment with vision for sending the information from distant stars and planets , as travelling to such places may become a reality fairly quickly, when measured in a few Human Lifetimmes.

    6. Congratulations on figuring out how to handle Crumbly Rocks! The Perseverence may also encounter many other different kinds of rocks. Figure out how to collect the same. Plan Ahead. So, the Future Missions can bring back the physical samples for analysis and study.

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.

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