Ground control to David Bowie, we’re getting closer to learning if there’s life on Mars.

On Friday morning, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced the Perseverance Mars rover has started drilling into the surface of Mars and will collect rock samples that NASA hopes will be collected by future missions to the red planet.

Those samples will be studied by the rover — and eventually (hopefully) Earthbound scientists — to better understand Mars’ astrobiology and if microbial life ever existed on the surface of the planet.

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  • “My first drill hole on Mars! Collecting and storing rock samples is a big and complex task, and this is a huge step. Next step: processing,” the rover (presumably via a human at NASA) said in Tweet early Friday morning.

Perseverance will conduct chemical and mineral analysis of the Martian samples with its own suite of instruments. NASA said these technologies will provide an “unprecedented analysis of geological materials at the worksite.”

Louise Jandura, the chief engineer for sampling and caching at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, said the large rover will collect about 35 total rocks samples during its mission. The rock material will be placed in a hermetically sealed tube that a follow-up Mars mission could one day bring back to Earth.

  • The NASA engineer wrote in a post Thursday, before Perseverance started drilling, that she had been preparing for eight years for the Martian mission, “but today it feels like just yesterday we were figuring out the design architecture for sampling & caching that we would take forward into the detailed design process.”
  • “In reality it was a long, intense, challenging, and exhilarating road that resulted in the sophisticated robotic hardware that is Perseverance,” Jandura wrote.
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In July, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said that astronaut Neil Armstrong’s 1969 lunar sample collection rewrote humanity’s understanding of the moon.

  • “I have every expectation that Perseverance’s first sample from Jezero Crater, and those that come after, will do the same for Mars. We are on the threshold of a new era of planetary science and discovery,” Zurbuchen predicted.
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