NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover finds clues in its hunt for life

NASA's Mars Perseverance rover finds clues in its hunt for life
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On the floor of a shallow crater on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover hit what scientists hoped was dirty. The Martian rocks excavated by the rover show signs of a watery past and are loaded with the kind of organic molecules that are the basis of life as we know it.

Scientists collaborating on the mission say the rock samples that the rover has cached in tubes for future return to Earth have the correct chemical formula. Preserve evidence of ancient Martian life, if any.

The new Perseverance research is detailed in three comprehensive studies published Wednesday, one in the journal Science and two in the journal Science Advances. this The journal reports are highly technical and devoid of exaggeration – it dares to be boring as dirt – but the scientists involved turn them into a more exciting story.

“This is great. “We find organics in almost every rock,” said Abigail Allwood, a geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who runs the rover and the wider Mars Sample Return mission.

One of the studies concluded that the rocks in the crater experienced three different events in which they were exposed to water.

“Importantly, the conditions in the rock every time water has passed through it may have favored small communities of microorganisms,” lead author Michael Tice, a geologist at Texas A&M University, said in an email. “We won’t know until we get the samples back to Earth,” he added in a later interview.

On February 18, 2021, NASA successfully landed the Perseverance rover on Mars. Here is a live video of the landing. (Video: NASA, Photo: NASA/NASA)

Perseverance made a full hit landing It was in Crater Lake in February on August 18, 2021, and has been in circulation ever since on Earth, caching rock samples for later study. This is an ambitious, multi-stage mission that will require NASA and its partner European Space Agency to send another vehicle capable of launching samples into orbit to the Martian surface. A spacecraft will then transport these samples back to Earth for laboratory research. The exact timeline is still to be determined, but NASA hopes to receive samples at its site in the early 2030s.

This study of Mars is part of the flowering of the young field. astrobiologyincludes the search for potentially habitable worlds and the first example of extraterrestrial life. Despite the efforts of generations of scientists and the claims of UFO enthusiasts, the discovery of life beyond Earth remains aspirational.

Even finding organics, which are life-friendly molecules with combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, is far from discovering life or even proving its existence in the past. Such molecules may be of biological or non-biological origin.

Still, Mars is front and center in NASA’s research, as it has many positive features. Mars probably looked much more like Earth about 3 billion years ago, with warmer and wetter conditions. Life may once have existed simultaneously on Earth and Mars, and it is possible that it originated on Mars and spread to Earth via meteorites. And while the surface is now a wasteland, there may be substantial amounts of liquid water below the planet’s surface and possibly “encrypted” life.

While the Perseverance rover doesn’t have the tools today to chemically detect living organisms, if any, their instruments give scientists the ability to study the Martian surface at a level of detail never before possible.

One of the new papers taking a closer look at Mars’ chemistry came as a surprise to geologists. They had assumed they were going to excavate a group of sedimentary rocks. Instead the rocks are volcanic.

Crater Lake was formed in an impact event at least 3.5 billion years ago – a rock that crashed into Mars. It’s clear that there was water inside the shallow crater a long time ago. This can be determined from orbital images that show the remnants of a delta from which a river flows into a lake. Planetary geologists had assumed that the bottom of the crater was covered with sedimentary rocks composed of dirt and debris that slowly accumulated at the bottom of the lake.

If such a sedimentary rock was there, it is now gone. “May be worn,” Tice said. The absence of sedimentary rocks could mean that the lake did not last very long, which could be disappointing for astrobiologists. Life as we know it needs water, and more complex life forms take time to develop. If the lake had not lingered, life might struggle to take root.

According to scientists, volcanic rocks are not a disappointment because they preserve a lot of information about Mars’ past, including the existence of organic molecules. According to planetary scientist Bethany Ehlmann, the existence of organic matter on Mars has been confirmed in previous missions, but their precise nature and chemistry are indistinguishable from such long-range surveys and will require laboratory investigation on Earth. Caltech and co-author of two of the new papers.

“Are they just organic matter washing into the system – perhaps from meteorite material, which is just part of the water? That would be the least exciting. Or would they be little niches of microbial life living in the cavities of these rocks? That would be the most exciting,” said Ehlmann.

He added that the rover “collected a wonderful set of specimens to reveal the environmental history of Mars in all its forms—volcanic history, water history, the relationship of organics to water-rich environments.”

This is all an attempt to solve the core mystery of Mars: What went wrong? How, when and why did this seemingly habitable planet turn into such a harsh place? The Red Planet may not be a dead planet – the coroner’s report is incomplete – but it certainly looks like a dead planet.

Scientists point to something missing on Mars today: a global magnetic field like Earth’s. Dry and area protection From the corrosive effects of the solar wind our atmosphere – high-energy particles that constantly flow from the sun and can remove lighter molecules. Mars also lacks plate tectonics, the geological process on Earth that recycles crust and continues to spew water- and nutrient-rich lava through active volcanoes.

Somewhere along the way, Mars’ magnetic field died and then It has become a different planet. It has lost almost all of its atmosphere. It has become a cold desert world. How quickly this happens is unknown, but that’s something the volcanic rocks in the crater can reveal.

Magma contains some iron, which is susceptible to a planet’s magnetism. As the lava cools, it crystallizes, turning into igneous rock, freezing electrons within iron-containing minerals into patterns that can reveal the properties of a magnetic field, such as its direction.

Benjamin Weiss, a planetary scientist at MIT and co-author of two of the papers, said in an email: “All things considered, we’re really lucky that there are igneous rocks in the crater and we landed right on them by chance, because we can determine ages and determine the magnetic field of Mars. ideal for studying past history.”

When the mission is able to send the gemstone collection back to Earth, scientists can finally figure out if life has found a foothold on Mars – raising new questions about whether life somehow persists despite the planet’s dramatic transformation. .

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