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The search for signs of life on Mars continues

Since NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars three years ago, its explorations, alongside its helicopter companion Ingenuity, have become a routine part of our newsfeed. They’ve provided a plethora of stunning Martian imagery and have gathered 23 rock core samples across 17 miles of an ancient river delta, transforming the extraordinary into the seemingly everyday.

University of Cincinnati Professor Andy Czaja, an integral part of the NASA science team, occasionally finds himself marveling at the scope of their work. “This is so cool. I’m exploring another planet,” Czaja reflects on the project’s grandeur. 

Perseverance has outperformed expectations

As a paleobiologist and astrobiologist, Czaja, along with his graduate students Andrea Corpolongo, Brianna Orrill, and Sam Hall, employs the rover’s specialized geoscience and imaging tools to scour Mars for signs of ancient life.

Three years in, Perseverance has outperformed expectations, equipped with sophisticated instruments enabling detailed geological examinations and high-resolution imaging. “Perseverance has excelled. It’s been fantastic,” Czaja lauds the rover’s capabilities and achievements, including historic firsts like powered flight on another planet and capturing the sounds of Mars.

Exploring potentially habitable environments 

Czaja played a pivotal role in selecting the landing site within Jezero Crater and continues to help guide the rover’s daily activities based on its findings. 

Among these discoveries is the identification of primary igneous rocks, crucial for dating the planet’s geological history, and evidence suggesting Mars once harbored hydrothermal systems, potentially habitable environments for life. Moreover, the findings indicate the presence of hydrated magnesium sulfate in volcanic rocks.

Clues to ancient microbial life 

The mission’s objective to determine if we’re alone in the universe hinges on analyzing the collected samples, which might contain microorganisms too tiny for the rover to detect. There’s hope that the proposed Mars Sample Return mission will bring these samples back to Earth for more detailed examination with advanced technologies.

Perseverance’s journey from the crater floor to its edge has unveiled sedimentary rocks rich in trapped minerals and magnesium carbonate deposits, both of which could hold clues to ancient microbial life. According to Czaja, the choice of Jezero Crater for exploration has proven very fruitful. 

“There were other places we could have gone that might have been just as good. You won’t know until you explore them all. But Jezero was picked for good reason and it has been completely justified,” he said.

The mission is far from over

While Ingenuity’s flights might have concluded due to rotor damage, Perseverance’s mission is far from over, with many more geological specimens yet to be collected. The rover’s next phase involves exiting Jezero Crater to investigate older geological formations, potentially revealing more about Mars’ ancient environments and the possibility of ancient life, such as stromatolites.

“I hope that Perseverance has just whetted our appetite for more Martian exploration. And bringing back samples will allow us to study Mars and search for evidence of ancient life with instruments that haven’t even been invented yet for years and years to come,” Czaja concluded.

The search for Martian life

The quest for life on Mars is a fascinating journey that spans several decades, involving a combination of robotic missions, astronomical observations, and theoretical studies. This endeavor is driven by the fundamental question of whether life exists beyond Earth. Mars, with its past evidence of water, has always been a prime candidate in this search.


The exploration began in the 1960s and 1970s with NASA’s Mariner and Viking missions. These early missions provided the first close-up photographs of the Martian surface, revealing a world with valleys and dried riverbeds, hinting at the planet’s wetter past. 

However, the Viking landers’ experiments designed to detect life provided inconclusive results, finding no definitive evidence of biological activity.

Sophisticated missions

In the decades that followed, missions became more sophisticated. Orbiters, landers, and rovers such as Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity), and the Mars 2020 mission with its Perseverance rover, have significantly advanced our understanding of the Martian environment. 

These missions have discovered compelling evidence of ancient water flows, organic molecules, and habitable environments that could have supported microbial life.

Underground water 

The quest has also expanded to include the search for subsurface water, with the European Space Agency’s Mars Express and the ExoMars missions contributing vital data. The discovery of underground water ice and signs of liquid water beneath Mars’ surface has further fueled speculation about life’s potential on the Red Planet.

Indicators of life

Astrobiologists and planetary scientists are studying the Martian atmosphere and soil for biosignatures, or indicators of life. They are also investigating extremophiles on Earth – organisms that thrive in extreme environments – to understand how Martian life, if it exists or existed, might survive the planet’s harsh conditions.

Conditions that support life 

The quest for life on Mars is not just about finding life itself but also about understanding the conditions that can support life, the history of water on Mars, and the planet’s potential for future human exploration and habitation. 

It represents a profound effort to answer one of humanity’s oldest questions: Are we alone in the universe? With each mission, we come closer to finding an answer, making the quest for life on Mars one of the most thrilling chapters in the exploration of our solar system.

The study is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

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