Mars rover reaches fertile terrain in search of clues about past life

Mars rover reaches fertile terrain in search of clues about past life

NASA on Mars rover persistence It has collected and stored samples of rocks made up of minerals and organic compounds that likely preserve traces of past microbial life, researchers said Thursday. The soil samples were collected at the bottom of an ancient river delta that meandered out from the edge of the site Game Jezero Crater.

But to find out if any such “potential biomarkers” 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 bottom of an ancient delta just inside 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 2030s.  / Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Two areas at the bottom of an ancient delta just inside 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 2030s. / Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The samples we’ve collected while we’re here today … are ingredients for life in terms of the environment,” said David Shuster, a Persistence returns sample scientist at the University of California.

The material in Jezero Crater was transported by water long ago and deposited into a 25-mile-wide lake with fine particles that settled out amid stages of evaporation—factors that combine to “have a high potential for biosignal preservation .”

“If these conditions had existed, I think, pretty much anywhere on Earth at any time in the last few billion years, I think it’s safe to say, or at least assume, that the biology has done its part. something and he left his mark in the rocks for us to notice.

“And that’s why we’re so excited to be able to address these questions while sending these samples back to labs here on Earth,” Shuster said. “All the ingredients are right here.”

Core samples collected by the Perseverance rover before the rocks were placed in tubes to await collection and return to Earth in the early 2030s for detailed laboratory analysis.  / Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Core samples collected by the Perseverance rover before the rocks were placed in tubes to await collection and return to Earth in the early 2030s for detailed laboratory analysis. / Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The $2.4 billion Endurance rover landed in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, and has spent the past 18 months working its way toward the bottom of a fan-like delta that cuts through the edge of what once was a wide, now-obsolete pool of water. about the size of filling Lake Tahoe.

Persistence has a series of sophisticated tools designed to study the ancient lake deposits, looking out for traces of past microbial life that may have filtered down to be preserved in sedimentary rock layers now.

In addition to allowing scientists to remotely survey Jezero’s rocks and sandy soil, persistence is also equipped with a complex collection and storage mechanism that can store more than 40 samples of soil and rock cores, while they are being mined sealed in small tubes that are closed to the environment to remain. transported back to Earth.

If successful, NASA and the European Space Agency will land a joint sample return mission on another spacecraft near Persistence around 2030 and collect the stored samples from the rover or use two small helicopters to pick up sample tubes Persistence will fall. on the surface.

The samples will be loaded onto a small rocket and blasted into Mars orbit where they will be picked up by another spacecraft and returned to Earth for analysis to determine if any of the “potential biosignatures” are actual traces of life microbial in the past.

“It may be 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.

Persistence has been performing almost flawlessly since landing 559 days ago. Soon unexpectedly, the rover found a funny rock far from the edge of Jezero Crater where scientists expected to find sedimentary layers of the bottom of the lake.

“What we found are igneous rocks, rocks that crystallized from melting,” said project scientist Ken Farley. “Not only did this crater hold the lake at one point, but before that, probably before that, there was also active volcanism, and maybe even a lava lake filling that crater. So there’s some complexity there that wasn’t We really hope so.”

After collecting samples of the igneous deposits, which will allow scientists to finally determine the age of the formations, Perseverance went towards the bottom of the delta and found the sediment deposits they were looking for.

“This specific area probably has the highest scientific value for the entire mission to explore,” Farley said. “This is the site that brought us to Jezero Crater. This is where we have the best opportunity to explore these ancient sedimentary rocks that are deposited in the lake.”

The rocks there “were deposited in a potentially habitable environment … and we’re looking for possible biomarkers.”

The Endurance rover ran 8 miles from landing on the floor of Jezero Crater to its current location at the bottom of an ancient delta.  / Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Endurance rover ran 8 miles from landing on the floor of Jezero Crater to its current location at the bottom of an ancient delta. / Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But he quickly cautioned that “a potential biosignature is something that could be produced by life, but also could be produced in the absence of life. The key point about a potential biosignature is that it compels further investigation come to a conclusion.”

And that further investigation is laboratory analysis of Earth after the sample return mission returns in the early 2030s.

Persistence has collected a dozen samples so far, as well as a sample of the Martian atmosphere and two “witness tubes” to help assess any possible contamination. The tubes are stored in the body of the rover, and the science team is discussing where to deposit an initial deposit for later retrieval by the return sampler.

The rover will eventually climb up to the top of the delta before making its way to the shore of the ancient lake, collecting more samples along the way. Assuming persistence remains healthy, he’ll be happy with the lander’s return of a sample and hand over his samples.

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