NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover discovers diversity and clues of microbial life in ancient lakebed rocks

NASA scientists said Thursday that the Mars Perseverance rover had found biologically interesting rocks in an ancient lake bed that may indicate microbial life existed on the Red Planet billions of years ago.

After launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida in July 2020, NASA successfully landed its second rover, Perseverance, on Mars in February 2021. The ride was accompanied by a 4-pound helicopter named Ingenuity which was a resounding success showing that controlled flight can be done on Mars.

Since landing, Percy has been wandering the site of an ancient dry delta of a Martian river known as Jezero Crater. The robot has seven scientific instruments, including cameras and two microphones that recorded the wind sounds on Mars and its landing.

On Thursday, mission leaders provided an update on what the rover discovered during the 8-mile exploration of Jezero Crater. The area was likely a lake more than 3.5 billion years ago, which is why NASA landed the rover there, to search an ancient habitable environment for evidence of life.

“This mission is not looking for existing living things that are alive today,” said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley. “Instead, we’re looking at a very distant past where Mars’ climate was very different from what it is today, much more conducive to life.”

In more than 550 Sols, or Martian days, Farley said Perseverance discovered that the history of the crater floor is more complicated than expected. Based on the findings of an ingenious rock formed from volcanic activity, the science team now believe that before holding a lake bed, the crater had active volcanic activity, even a lava lake.

Rocks that inspire excitement: Wildcat Ridge and Skinner Ridge

Scientists said several rock samples collected from Mars contain organic molecules associated with life. Two rock samples, in particular, were taken from rocks the team named Wildcat Ridge and Skinner Ridge, which got the science team excited. The stones were named after trails in Shenandoah National Park.

The rocks, about 20 meters (66 feet) apart, offered widely diverse samples, but each with high scientific value, said Perseverance sample return scientist David Shuster. However, the two samples have something in common.

“These two rocks are composed of sediments that have been transported by liquid water,” Shuster said, adding that both rocks had undergone weathering involving water. “Thus, these rocks formed and record indications of a habitable environment.”

Using the rover’s instrument called Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, or SHERLOC, to analyze the area where the rover collected the samples, the team found the highest concentration of organic matter yet. during the mission. Organic matter, considered the building blocks of life, can be created by processes that involve life but also from other circumstances, such as geological activity, not involving life.

“If this is a scavenger hunt for potential signs of life on another planet, organic matter is a clue. And we get stronger and stronger clues as we go further into our Delta campaign,” said Sunanda Sharma, Perseverance SHERLOC instrument specialist. “I personally find these results so moving because we feel like we’re in the right place with the right tools at a pivotal time.”

The samples are about the size of a pinky finger and are stored in tubes until a follow-up mission can retrieve the Martian rocks from Perseverance in 2030.

What awaits us? A critical robotic transfer

The rover’s biggest work is yet to come.

Perseverance continues to collect rock core samples and search for potential sample landing sites for a robotic sample return mission.

To bring the first Mars samples back to Earth, NASA and the European Space Agency have an elaborate plan involving a fleet of robots, including the Perseverance rover, a new Mars lander, a sample-capturing spacecraft and two tiny helicopters. .

The two space agencies simplified the original Mars Sample Return campaign mission, removing a sample-retrieval rover and its associated lander. NASA and ESA officials said they changed the plan because of Perseverance’s expected longevity and the success of the Ingenuity helicopter, which has now made 29 flights to Mars.

Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen said the plan was still to have two methods of getting the samples back to Earth, using Perseverance or another rover for transfer.

Instead of an additional rover, the plan is to use two tiny helicopters as the backup option and Percy as the primary. The rover is the primary means of delivering samples to the Sample Retrieval Lander, which will carry the Mars Ascent Vehicle and ESA’s robotic transfer arm.

Percy will also drop a sample cache in the river delta as an “insurance policy” option before moving on to older terrain on Mars. Future missions could recover these samples.

The ultimate goal is to bring the first soil and rock samples from Mars back to Earth for detailed analysis.

Sharma said bringing the rock cores back to Earth is the surest way to confirm the organic matter the science team thinks they’ve found in the rock samples from Mars.

“Obviously the instruments we have in the rover are amazing, and the fact that we can do these observations of organic molecules on Mars, to begin with, is just awesome,” Sharma said. “But it’s really the level of spatial detail that will be different here on Earth.”

NASA planetary science manager Lori Glaze said what the rover has found so far tells the team it has picked the right place on Mars to explore.

“Just the comprehensive work that has been done by this incredible team at Perseverance to date tells me that not only have we been to the right place, but we have sent the right spacecraft with the right science instruments to explore this incredible ancient environment on Mars,” Glaze said.

Over the next few months, Perseverance will explore an area known as Enchanted Lake to collect more samples.

Leave a Comment