NASA’s Perseverance rover has collected several “tantalizing” rock samples from an ancient river delta on Mars, setting the stage for an elaborate future mission that aims to recover the specimens and bring them back to Earth.
Agency officials said Thursday that four “scientifically compelling” rock samples were collected inside the Jezero Crater, an area on Mars where a river and lake once converged billions of years ago, making it a prime location. to search for signs of ancient microbial life.
Scientists won’t be able to study the specimens closely until they are brought to Earth, likely in the 1930s, but NASA said some of the rocks contain the highest concentrations of organic material ever detected by the rover. Perseverance.
“I personally find these findings so moving because it seems like we are in the right place with the right tools at a very crucial time,” Sunanda Sharma, mission scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at a news conference Thursday.
The presence of organic molecules – typically made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – does not necessarily mean that there was once life on the Red Planet, but organic substances are considered key ingredients for life.
Ken Farley, a scientist on the Perseverance project at the California Institute of Technology, said the researchers do not yet know the significance of the findings, but added that it is “interesting” to find rocks with organic matter in the habitable environment of the Jezero Crater.
“These rocks are exactly the kind of rocks we have come to investigate, both with the rover and its scientific instruments, and to bring them back to Earth so they can be studied in terrestrial laboratories,” he said.
Perseverance has explored the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater Basin since it landed on Mars in February 2021. The rover previously found igneous rocks, likely formed deep underground due to volcanic processes, at the bottom of the crater. Perseverance is now examining sedimentary samples along the fan-shaped delta, which is thought to have formed 3.5 billion years ago from an ancient river that emptied into Jezero.
“This amazing rover has collected a truly tempting suite of rocks with extraordinary scientific potential,” Laurie Leshin, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the briefing.
Perseverance, for example, identified a 3-foot-wide mudstone, nicknamed Wildcat Ridge, which contains organic compounds and probably formed billions of years ago when mud and sandy sediments were deposited in an evaporating lake.
Perseverance has collected 12 “scientifically convincing” rock cores to date, along with a sample of the atmosphere of the Red Planet.
The rover mission to the Martian surface is the first step in the so-called Mars Sample Return campaign, a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. Subsequent missions will send another spacecraft to Mars to collect the samples and bring them back to Earth for more detailed analysis.
This article was originally posted on NBCNews.com