NASA’s Perseverance Rover has successfully collected a sample of Martian rock from Jezero Crater that could potentially contain signs of ancient life. This marks the first sample of the Mars Sample Return campaign being conducted by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). However, it will be another 10 years or so before this particular tube will reach a terrestrial laboratory where it can be studied.
Perseverance has been exploring Mars for almost a year, searching for sampling sites that might contain ancient microbes and organics. It has completed its first of four search campaigns, focusing on the crater floor and the base of the Neretva Vallis delta, and has now started its second campaign, where it will hunt for worthy rocks at the top of the delta.
“With this diversity of environments to observe and collect from, we are confident that these samples will allow us to better understand what occurred here at Jezero Crater billions of years ago,” said Ken Farley, Perseverance’s project scientist at Caltech.
The latest sample is its 19th tube of matter, with the 16th containing a piece of rock cored out with its drill. Other tubes contain ‘regolith,’ broken rock and dust that lacks organic material, and Martian atmosphere.
These 19 samples will remain stored in Perseverance’s belly until a robotic lander arrives on Mars in the future. The lander will use a robotic arm to place the tubes in the containment capsule of a small rocket, which will then be launched out into Mars’ orbit. Another ESA spacecraft called the Earth Return Orbiter will come by to pick up the containment capsule, which will be brought back to Earth by 2033, marking the first time samples will have been brought back from Mars.
In case Perseverance cannot deliver these samples to the lander for some reason, like if it runs out of power, the rover took duplicates of 10 of the 19 samples it has picked up so far, which it has dropped at a special location at the base of the delta. This spot is known as “Three Forks,” and if the lander cannot pick up the original samples, two Sample Recovery Helicopters will collect these duplicates instead.
The latest samples came from a rock dubbed Berea, which is thought to have formed from rock deposits left by an ancient river. This river may have taken material from a region on Mars outside the Jezero Crater that Perseverence has been exploring, making it of specific interest to scientists. Additionally, the rock is rich in carbonate, which is known to be good at preserving fossilized lifeforms on Earth.
Katie Stack Morgan, the deputy project scientist for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, expressed optimism about the potential of the new rock sample: “If biosignatures were present in this part of Jezero Crater, it could be a rock like this one that could very well hold their secrets.”
The rock is thought to have formed from deposits left by an ancient river that may have carried material from a region on Mars outside the Jezero Crater, making it of particular interest to scientists.
Carbonates are known to form due to chemical interactions that occur in water, providing valuable information about the climatic changes in the area where they were formed. The Martian carbonates are expected to reveal insight about the climate on the Red Planet when it was covered in liquid water about three billion years ago.
Perseverance’s next sample will be taken from the sedimentary fan deposit at Jezero’s next bend in the dried-up river. The delta rises more than 130 feet (40 m) above the crater floor, and scientists hope it will provide numerous geologic revelations.
Deltas on Earth have fine-grained clay-rich rocks that are good at preserving ancient biomarkers, or “molecular fossils,” which are complex organic molecules created by life and preserved in rock for up to billions of years.
Perseverance uses its onboard instruments to detect whether organic molecules are present before coring with its drill. Once extracted, the core samples will be returned to Earth in the 2030s, where scientists can analyze them in laboratories.
They will identify any organics present and characterize their molecular structures in detail. These analyses can help determine whether any organic molecules contained in Martian delta rocks are biomarkers or non-biological organics.
In conclusion, the new rock sample from Jezero Crater on Mars could hold secrets about ancient microbial life. The search for biosignatures is a critical part of the mission of the Perseverance rover, and the new rock sample is a promising target. The study of carbonates and organic molecules in the sample could provide valuable insights into the climate of Mars billions of years ago.
The successful collection of the sample marks an important milestone in the Mars Sample Return campaign, which aims to gather samples from the Red Planet and bring them back to Earth for further study. While the wait for the return of the samples may be long, the potential discoveries they hold make it an exciting prospect for scientists and space enthusiasts alike.
For decades, Mars has captivated the imagination of scientists and science fiction fans alike. With its dusty red terrain and stark, rocky landscapes, it has long been regarded as the most Earth-like planet in our solar system, and as a result, the most likely candidate for extraterrestrial life. Today, the search for life on Mars remains one of the most active areas of research in planetary science, with numerous missions and experiments underway to try and answer this age-old question.
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