Justin Simon Shepherds Perseverance Through First Phase of Martian Rock Sampling

“This is a historic opportunity,” said Simon. “We’ve been working toward sampling Mars for decades, which is part of why it’s so exciting.”

For the first phase of sampling, Simon was given a special role of being the mission’s first sample “shepherd.” The shepherd consults and coordinates with all the various rover teams ­– scientists, engineers, controllers, and more – to choose and explore interesting rocks and other materials (such as regolith, or dust) in ways that are safe, achievable, appropriately timed, and help address the mission’s science goals. Simon was given the role for the first leg of sampling because of his track record and expertise in properly handling and analyzing extraterrestrial samples, and real-world experiences conducting geological field work on Earth.

“Before I was selected to be the first shepherd, I got really involved learning about how missions are conducted because mission surface operations were new and interesting to me,” said Simon.

In the months before the mission launched, Simon studied images and other materials from Mars, and participated in scenario testing and training sessions to figure out the best ways to conduct science with the rover. He also led working groups to plan their on-the-ground explorations.

“I work well in a team environment,” said Simon. “Add in my field geology experience, which is a strength for a sample scientist, and mission leadership had confidence in my ability to successfully work with the engineering, mission, and sample science teams.”

Perseverance is currently exploring a roughly 2-kilometer swath of terrain within Jezero Crater. The rover may travel over 100 meters in a single day and has rolled over 1,200 meters to date. As the rover maneuvers around, scientists are watching and assessing the objects in the area to determine what they should study and the questions they can answer.

The team got one step closer to answering these questions when Perseverance successfully collected its first pair of rock samples. After collecting its first sample, nicknamed “Montdenier,” on Sept. 6, the team collected a second, “Montagnac,” from the same rock on Sept. 8. The cores from Jezero Crater, each slightly thicker than a pencil, are now enclosed in airtight titanium sample tubes, making them available for retrieval in the future. Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California received the data that confirmed this historic milestone.

Simon is excited about Perseverance’s next sampling site, only 656 feet (200 meters) away in “South Séítah,” a series of ridges covered by sand dunes, boulders, and rock shards.

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission 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.

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

Learn more about ARES and the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission.