Robots on Mars, an Empty Sample Tube and a Laser

Several days ago, a robot on Mars selected a hollow coring bit from its tool kit, drilled into a rock, withdrew the tool and placed the core into a sample tube.

At least, that’s what should have happened.

But just to be sure, Perseverance felt inside the tube and took a look before sealing it.

Oops. The sample tube was empty.

NASA’s discussion of the robot’s first try at collecting samples is more detailed and less anthropomorphic:

At any rate, after finding the core sample in the tube, Perseverance radioed a report back to Earth; including a picture of what wasn’t inside sample collection tube number 233.


'Journey to Mars:' NASA's Perseverance rover's caching strategy.
(From NASA, used w/o permission.)

Sample collection tube number 233 was supposed to hold the first of many core samples taken by Perseverance, and left at a depot for later pickup. It’s not the robot’s only job on Mars, but it’s an important one.

If at First You Don’t Succeed — Try Another Spot

Mars 2020 sample collection tube 233: empty. (August 6, 20201)
(From NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission.)
(CacheCam’s view of (empty) sample collection tube number 233. (August 6, 2021))

The last time I checked, humans back on Earth decided that Perseverance should head for the next sampling spot and try again.

Looks like the tools worked fine. The Corer drilled seven centimeters into the rock, just as it was supposed to.

Perseverance pulled it out and would have dropped a core sample into the collection tube, but apparently the rock was too crumbly. The robot has looked for the missing core, or pieces of a broken core, on the surface and even peeked down the hole it drilled; but found nothing.

Scientists figure that —

“…the coring activity in this unusual rock resulted only in powder/small fragments which were not retained due to their size and the lack of any significant chunk of a core. It appears that the rock was not robust enough to produce a core….”
(“Assessing Perseverance’s First Sample Attempt,” Louise Jandura, Chief Engineer for Sampling & Caching at NASA/JPL, Mars Perseverance Rover Blog (August 11, 2011))

Perseverance found some stuff at the bottom of the hole. Scientists figure that the missing core sample is either at the bottom of the hole, mixed in with the cuttings pile, or both.

Either way, there’s not much point in trying again there, so they’re telling Perseverance to try again at the next sample collection spot.1

‘Here’s a Map, Good Luck!’

Mars 2020 flight systems.The Mars rover is a smart robot.

It had to be. Folks at NASA wanted MARS 2020 to explore Jezero Crater: an interesting bit of real estate.

But what made it interesting also made it a very dangerous landing field.

So they gave Perseverance a map of the landing zone, told the robot which patches of the Martian surface were comparatively safe, and let the onboard EDL and TRN systems decide which one to pick.

TRN is technospeak for Terrain Relative Navigation and Entry. EDL means Entry, Descent, and Landing.

Again, Perseverance is a very smart robot. It’s autonomous, making many of its own decisions, but it’s not fully autonomous.

If it were, then it wouldn’t have been waiting for folks back on Earth to tell it what to do after the first core sample drilling came up empty.

That’s the way it is now. But we haven’t stopped designing smarter robots.

Sooner or later, autonomous spacecraft and rovers will almost certainly call home only when they have something they figure humans will want to see: based on criteria we’ve given them.2

The Little Helicopter That Could

(From JPL/NASA, via ISAE-SUPAERO/YouTube, used w/o permission.)
(Ingenuity’s fourth flight: another short flight for a helicopter, another giant leap for robots. (May 1, 2021))

Ingenuity, the Mars 2020 helicopter, is another smart robot: and has to be, too, since flying requires decisions based on what’s happening now: not five to twenty minutes ago.

Make that ten to 40 minutes ago, depending on where Earth and Mars are in their orbits.

Ingenuity can’t wait that long for ‘current’ flight data to reach Earth, someone with a joystick to react, and the data to travel back to Mars. So, although folks back on Earth tell Ingenuity where to go, The little helicopter flies itself.3

Snapshot From Mars

Image from Ingenuity's 11th flight: Perseverance rover. (August 4, 2021)
(From NASA/JPL-CalTech, used w/o permission.)
(‘I can see my rover from here!.’ Ingenuity’s view of Perseverance. (August 4, 2021))

Besides flight-testing the first Martian helicopter, Ingenuity is scouting ahead on Perseverance’s route; looking for possible hazards and interesting items.

Although I gather that humans back on Earth decide what’s safe, what’s not, and what’s worth a closer look.

Eventually, I’m pretty sure that our robots will decide what they’ll do next on their own. Based, again, on whatever folks back on Earth told them to be looking for.

Which reminds me. Besides sending back pictures and video clips — and, we hope, collecting core samples for later pickup — Perseverance has been zapping rocks with a laser.

A New and Improved Martian Rock-Zapper

US Army Research Laboratory's schematic of a LIBS system. (2010)Perseverance’s LIBS — Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy — isn’t the first rock-zapper on Mars.

Curiosity used an earlier model some 160,000 times at 4,500 locations.

The rover’s LIBS laser is just like the one in a DVD player, except that instead of bouncing light off a DVD disk, it vaporizes rock.

Not much rock, just enough to make plasma that’s bright enough for the LIBS spectrometer. That instrument tells scientists what elements are in the rock.

The Perseverance rover’s LIBS is about the same size and shape as Curiosity’s, but holds more and smaller instruments.

I gather that the LIBS laser’s pulse lasts no more than a few nanoseconds and carries upwards of 12 millijoules of energy.

A millijoule is — feel free to skip ahead, geek-speak can be boring — one thousandths of a joule, a joule is equivalent to one watt of electricity for one second, so it’s not much energy.

Just enough to make a bit of rock go “pop” and flash for a moment. That’s useful, since measuring how fast the “pop” reaches Perseverance’s microphone tells scientists the speed of sound in Martian air.4


'Does it LOOK Like We Need Help?!' Brian H. Gill (2014)

Robots are everywhere, not just on Mars. They’re building cars, packaging products and carrying them around warehouses.

Children dreaming of a life spent working as stock clerks will be sorely disappointed, unless we stop using robots.

This may be the end of civilization as we know it, which strikes me as a good thing. Particularly since I’m quite sure today’s world isn’t the best of all possible worlds.

And that, along with Leibnizian monadology and Voltaire’s “Candide,” is another topic.5

It’s been some time since I’ve seen scary headlines about robots replacing humans, so I’ll keep this brief. Brief for me, that is. Besides, I’ve talked about it before, and will put links to that stuff when I’m done here.

“To err is human….”

Boston Dynamics Atlas robots, showing how they'd work as stock clerks. Boston Dynamics, via Digital Trends, used w/o permission. (2017)If I thought humans in general and me in particular were defined by our jobs, then I’d have reason for concern.

I might also be a bit muddled about who and what I am, since I’ve had a whole mess of jobs: including but not limited to delivery guy, beet chopper, radio DJ, computer operator and list manager.

Today’s robots can probably do some of my old jobs better than I did. Tomorrow’s will most likely serve even more functions.

But replacing humans as humans? There’s an old joke about that, sort of, from the days when computers were scary new tech:

“To err is human.
To really foul things up, you need a computer.”
(20th century joke)

As I see it, humans are so good at being humans that no robot can ever replace us. Although I’m pretty sure that robots will eventually make better stock clerks.


Amazing Stories magazine cover. (March 1939)I’m quite sure that nobody’s raised concerns over NASA’s Mars rovers rolling across the Martian landscape, taking potshots at rocks with their lasers.

Ever since the Mariner flybys, we’ve realized that Martian civilizations aren’t here.

And almost certainly never were.

I’d say certainly, with no qualifier, since the most optimistic serious speculation about Martian life has been downgraded to maybe what Earth had a billion years back.

I think the current scientific consensus regarding Martian life is right, but also think that “certainty” can wait until after we’ve thoroughly explored the place.

Granted, locally-grown Martians like the multicolored Burroughs Barsoomians are wildly improbable, putting it mildly.

Just the same, before we send fully-autonomous robots to places that might have folks who’d take umbrage at being zapped — even it was just a little “pop” of a zap — maybe we should think about how a robot could tell the difference between a rock and, say, a backyard barbecue grill.

Or how to apologize, if a rock said “ouch” and moved. And that’s yet another topic. Topics.

I said there’d be links. Here they are:

1 A missing core sample:

2 A smart robot:

3 Another smart robot:

4 Energy units and a laser on Mars:

5 Philosophers and robots:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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3 Responses to Robots on Mars, an Empty Sample Tube and a Laser

  1. Alisha Ross says:

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  2. irishbrigid says:

    Wrong word: “At any rate, after finding to core sample in the tube,”

    Missing word: “folks back on Earth to tell it to do after the first core sample drilling came up empty.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

    P.S. I have this adorable mental image of Perseverance frantically swiveling its camera and making worried noises like WALL-E.

Thanks for taking time to comment!