NASA's Perseverance Mars rover hits paydirt in search of clues to possible past life

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover hits paydirt in search of clues to possible past life

from NASA The Mars Perseverance rover collected and stored rock samples made up of minerals and organic compounds that on Earth would likely retain traces of past microbial life, researchers said Thursday. The soil samples were collected at the base of an ancient river delta that extended from the edge of crater lake.

But to find out if such “potential biosignatures” include actual traces of past life on Mars, scientists will have to wait for a NASA-European Space Agency mission later in the decade to collect them and bring them back to Earth for detailed analyses. laboratory analysis.

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Two areas at the base of an ancient delta just inside Jezero Crater on Mars where the Perseverance rover collected samples that may contain traces of past microbial life. To find out one way or another, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to retrieve the samples from the rover and return them to Earth for analysis in the early 2030s.

NASA/JPL-Caltech


“The samples we collected as we presented here today … have ingredients for life in terms of the environmental framework,” said David Shuster, Perseverance return sample scientist at the University of California.

The material was transported long ago into the Jezero crater by water and deposited in a 25-mile-wide lake with fine particles that settled in the middle of the evaporation phases – factors that combine to “have a high potential for biosignature preservation”.

“If these conditions existed, I think, just about anywhere on Earth at any time during the last…three and a half billion years, I think it’s safe to say, or at least to suppose, that biology would have done its thing and left its mark in these rocks for us to observe.

“And that’s really why we’re so excited to be able to answer these questions when these samples are returned to the labs here on Earth,” Shuster said. “We have all the right ingredients here.”

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Cores taken by the Perseverance rover before the rocks are sealed in tubes awaiting collection and return to Earth in the early 2030s for detailed laboratory analysis.

NASA/JPL-Caltech


The $2.4 billion Perseverance rover landed in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, and has spent the last 18 months working its way to the base of a fan-shaped delta crossing the rim where water once rushed to fill a wide pool now gone from the size of Lake Tahoe.

Perseverance is equipped with a suite of sophisticated instruments designed to study ancient lakebed deposits, looking for traces of past microbial life that may have filtered through to be preserved in what are now layers of sedimentary rock.

In addition to giving scientists the ability to remotely study the rocks and sandy soil of Jezero, Perseverance is also equipped with a complex collection and caching mechanism that can store over 40 soil and core samples. rocky, sealing them in small closed tubes to wait to bring back to Earth.

If all goes well, a joint sample-return mission being developed by NASA and the European Space Agency will land another spacecraft near Perseverance around 2030 and collect the stored samples from the rover or use two small helicopters to pick up sample tubes. Perseverance will have dropped on the surface.

The samples will be loaded onto a small rocket and rocketed into Mars orbit where they will be picked up by another spacecraft and returned to Earth for analysis to determine if any of the “potential biosignatures” are actual traces of past microbial life.

“The return of a sample from Mars represents perhaps the best chance to answer a very deep question: are we alone in the universe?” said Sunanda Sharma, a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who works with one of the rover’s instruments.


Perseverance explores the Jezero Crater Delta by
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Youtube

Perseverance has been working almost flawlessly since landing 559 days ago on Mars. In a first surprise, the rover found igneous rock well away from the rim of Jezero crater where scientists expected to find sedimentary layers of the lake bed.

“What we found were igneous rocks, rocks crystallized from melting,” said project scientist Ken Farley. “This crater not only contained the lake at one time, but before that, probably before that, it also had active volcanism, and possibly even a lava lake filling this crater. So there is some complexity to which we weren’t really expecting.”

After collecting samples of the igneous deposits, which will allow scientists to eventually determine the age of the formations, Perseverance headed to the base of the delta and found the sedimentary deposits he was looking for.

“This specific area probably has the highest scientific value for exploration of the entire mission,” Farley said. “This is the site that brought us to the Jezero Crater. This is where we have the best chance of exploring these ancient sedimentary rocks deposited in the lake.”

The rocks there “have been deposited in a potentially habitable environment…and we’re looking for potential biosignatures.”

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The 8-mile trek of the Perseverance rover from landing on the floor of Jezero Crater to its current location at the base of an ancient delta.

NASA/JPL-Caltech


But he was quick to warn that “a potential biosignature is something that may have been produced by life, but could also have been produced in the absence of life. The key point of a potential biosignature is that it binds further investigation to come to a conclusion”.

And this further investigation is a laboratory analysis on Earth after the return of the sample return mission in the early 2030s.

Perseverance has collected a dozen samples so far, along with a sample of the Martian atmosphere and two “test tubes” to help assess any contamination that may be present. The tubes are stored in the rover’s body, and the science team debates where to deposit an initial cache for later retrieval by the sample return lander.

The rover will eventually climb to the top of the delta before heading to the shore of the old lake, collecting more samples along the way. Assuming Perseverance stays healthy, he’ll meet the Returning Sample Lander and hand over his Sample Treasure.

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