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Perseverance rover samples a rock that once sat at the bottom of a Martian lake

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has uncovered a rock sample that provides compelling evidence of the planet’s watery past. The sample, collected on March 11, 2024, marks the rover’s 24th successful retrieval, further advancing our understanding of the Red Planet’s ancient environment.

Promising find in Jezero Crater

Ken Farley, project scientist for Perseverance at Caltech in Pasadena, California, expressed his excitement about the discovery.

“To put it simply, this is the kind of rock we had hoped to find when we decided to investigate Jezero Crater,” Farley explained.

“Nearly all the minerals in the rock we just sampled were made in water; on Earth, water-deposited minerals are often good at trapping and preserving ancient organic material and biosignatures. The rock can even tell us about Mars climate conditions that were present when it was formed,” he continued.

Bunsen Peak: A window into Mars’ past

The rock, nicknamed “Bunsen Peak” after the Yellowstone National Park landmark, measures approximately 5.6 feet wide and 3.3 feet high (1.7 meters by 1 meter).

Its unique texture and vertical rockface caught the attention of Perseverance scientists, as it offers a cross-section of the rock that is less dusty and easier for science instruments to investigate.

“The silica and parts of the carbonate appear microcrystalline, which makes them extremely good at trapping and preserving signs of microbial life that might have once lived in this environment,” explained Sandra Siljeström, a Perseverance scientist from the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) in Stockholm.

“That makes this sample great for biosignature studies if returned to Earth. Additionally, the sample might be one of the older cores collected so far by Perseverance, and that is important because Mars was at its most habitable early in its history,” she concluded.

Perseverance rock samples in Jezero Crater

Bunsen Peak is the third sample collected by Perseverance while exploring the “Margin Unit,” a geologic area that hugs the inner edge of Jezero Crater’s rim.

Briony Horgan, a Perseverance scientist from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, noted, “We’re still exploring the margin and gathering data, but results so far may support our hypothesis that the rocks here formed along the shores of an ancient lake.”

Horgan continued, “The science team is also considering other ideas for the origin of the Margin Unit, as there are other ways to form carbonate and silica. But no matter how this rock formed, it is really exciting to get a sample.”

The road ahead for Perseverance

As Perseverance continues its journey, the rover is making its way toward the westernmost portion of the Margin Unit.

The science team is particularly interested in a location nicknamed “Bright Angel” at the base of Jezero Crater’s rim, as it may offer the first encounter with the much older rocks that make up the crater rim.

Once the rover completes its exploration of Bright Angel, it will embark on a several-month ascent to the rim’s top, further expanding our knowledge of Mars’ geological history.

Continuing the search for ancient life on Mars

The discovery of the water-rich Bunsen Peak rock sample by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover marks a crucial milestone in our exploration of the Red Planet.

As the rover continues to traverse the “Margin Unit” and ascend to the top of Jezero Crater’s rim, it will undoubtedly uncover more clues about Mars’ ancient environment and its potential for once harboring life.

With each sample collected and analyzed, we move closer to answering the fundamental questions about our place in the universe and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

The Perseverance mission expands our scientific knowledge and ignites our imagination and fuels our drive to continue exploring the mysteries of our celestial neighbor.

More about Perseverance, rocks, and water on Mars

As discussed above, scientists have long suspected that Mars once harbored vast amounts of water on its surface. Numerous geological features, such as ancient river valleys, deltas, and lake beds, provide compelling evidence that the Red Planet experienced a much wetter climate in its distant past.

NASA’s Mars missions, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Curiosity rover, have captured high-resolution images and data that support this hypothesis.

Perseverance rover’s discoveries

The Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021, has been instrumental in furthering our understanding of the planet’s watery history.

By exploring the Jezero Crater, a region believed to have once hosted a large lake, Perseverance has discovered rocks that were formed in the presence of water.

These water-altered rocks contain minerals such as carbonates and silica, which are known to be excellent at preserving signs of ancient microbial life.

Implications for life on Mars

The presence of water on Mars, both in its ancient past and in the form of ice at its poles and subsurface today, has significant implications for the potential existence of life on the Red Planet.

Water is a crucial ingredient for life as we know it, and the discovery of water-rich environments on Mars raises the possibility that the planet may have once supported microbial life.

As Perseverance continues to collect and cache samples for eventual return to Earth, scientists eagerly await the opportunity to study these rocks in detail, searching for any signs of past or present life.

Future missions and discoveries

The search for water on Mars is far from over. Future missions, such as the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover and NASA’s Mars Sample Return campaign, will build upon the discoveries made by Perseverance and other rovers.

These missions will focus on exploring regions with a high likelihood of preserving evidence of ancient water and potential biosignatures.

As we continue to unravel the secrets of Mars’ watery past, we move closer to answering one of the most profound questions of our time: Are we alone in the universe?


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