The Mars rover reaches fertile ground in search of clues to past life

The Mars rover reaches fertile ground in search of clues to past life

of NASA The Mars Perseverance rover has collected and preserved rock samples made up of minerals and organic compounds that, on Earth, would likely retain traces of past microbial life, the researchers said Thursday. Soil samples were collected at the base of an ancient river delta that fanned out from the edge of the Jezero Crater.

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

Two areas at the base of an ancient delta just inside the Jezero crater on Mars where the Perseverance rover has 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 rover's samples and return them to Earth for analysis in the early 1930s.  / Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Two areas at the base of an ancient delta just inside the Jezero crater on Mars where the Perseverance rover has 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 rover’s samples and return them to Earth for analysis in the early 1930s. / Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

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

The material was long ago transported into the Jezero Crater by water and deposited in a 25 mile wide lake with fine particles that were deposited during the evaporation phases, which combine to “have a high bio-signature retention potential.” .

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

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

Samples collected by the Perseverance rover before the rocks were sealed in tubes awaiting collection and return to Earth in the early 1930s for detailed laboratory analysis.  / Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Samples collected by the Perseverance rover before the rocks were sealed in tubes awaiting collection and return to Earth in the early 1930s for detailed laboratory analysis. / Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The $ 2.4 billion Perseverance rover landed in Jezero crater on February 18, 2021 and has spent the past 18 months making its way to the base of a fan-shaped delta that cuts the edge where water once flowed to fill a large, now-vanished pool the size of Lake Tahoe.

Perseverance is equipped with a suite of sophisticated tools designed to study the ancient deposits of the lake floor, looking for traces of past microbial life that could be filtered to be preserved in what are now sedimentary rock layers.

In addition to giving scientists the opportunity to remotely probe Jezero’s rocks and sandy soil, Perseverance is also equipped with a complex collection and caching mechanism capable of storing more than 40 soil and rock core samples, sealing them. in small closed tubes to the environment awaiting transport back to Earth.

Hopefully, a joint sample return mission developed by NASA and the European Space Agency will land another spacecraft near Perseverance around 2030 and collect the samples stored by the rover or use two small helicopters to collect the Perseverance tubes. it will have fallen to the surface.

The samples will be loaded onto a small rocket and detonated in the orbit of Mars, where they will be captured by another spacecraft and returned to Earth for analysis to determine if any of the “potential biological signatures” are actual traces of microbial life. passed.

“The return of the Mars champion represents perhaps the best chance ever to answer a very profound 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 has operated almost flawlessly since its landing 559 days ago on Mars. In a first surprise, the rover found igneous rock well away from the edge of the Jezero crater, where scientists expected to find lake bottom sedimentary layers.

“What we found are igneous rocks, rocks that have been crystallized from a melt,” said project scientist Ken Farley. “This crater not only contained the lake in one spot, but before, probably before, it also had active volcanism and possibly even a lava lake filling that crater. So there’s a certain complexity there that we didn’t really expect.”

After collecting samples of the igneous deposits, which will allow scientists to 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 the exploration of the entire mission,” Farley said. “This is the site that led us to Jezero Crater. This is where we have the best chance of exploring these ancient sedimentary rocks deposited in the lake.”

The rocks there “settled in a potentially habitable environment … and we looked for potential biological signatures.”

The 8-mile journey of the Perseverance rover from landing on the floor of Jezero Crater to its current location at the base of an ancient delta.  / Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The 8-mile journey of the Perseverance rover from landing on the floor of Jezero Crater to its current location at the base of an ancient delta. / Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

But he quickly warned that “a potential bio-signature is something that may have been produced from life, but it could also have been produced in the absence of life. The key point about a potential bio-signature is that it forces further investigation to draw a conclusion”.

And that further investigation is a laboratory analysis on Earth after the sample return mission returned to the early 1930s.

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

The rover will eventually climb to the top of the delta before making its way to the shore of the ancient lake, collecting more specimens along the way. Assuming Perseverance stays healthy, he will meet up with the returning champion lander and deliver his treasure trove of champions.

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