The Mars Perseverance rover has found biologically interesting rocks in an ancient lake bed that could indicate that microbial life existed on the red planet billions of years ago, NASA scientists said Thursday.
After launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida in July 2020, NASA successfully landed the second rover Perseverance on Mars in February 2021. A 4-pound helicopter called the Ingenuity was present throughout the trip, an insane feat that showed controlled flights were possible. Made on Mars.
Since landing, Percy has been wandering around the site of a dried-up ancient Martian river delta known as the Jezero Crater. The robot has seven scientific instruments, including cameras and two microphones that record images. Wind sounds on Mars and landing.
On Thursday, mission managers gave an update on what the rover discovered while exploring 8 miles of Jezero Crater. The area was probably a lake more than 3.5 billion years ago, so NASA landed the rover there to look for evidence of life in an ancient habitable environment.
“This task is not to search for current life things that are alive today,” said Ken Farley, Perseverance project scientist. “Instead, we’re looking at a very distant past, when the Martian climate was very different from today, much more conducive to life.”
Farley said he found that at more than 550 Sols or Martian days, the history of Perseverance’s crater floor is more complex than expected. Based on their ingenious findings of rock formed from volcanic activity, the scientific team now believes the crater had active volcanic activity, even a lava lake, before holding a lake bed.
Rocks to be excited about: Wildcat Ridge and Skinner Ridge
The few rock samples collected on Mars contain organic molecules associated with life, the scientists said. In particular, two rock samples that the team named Wildcat Ridge and Skinner Ridge collected from the rocks excited the science team. The stones are named after the trails in Shenandoah National Park.
Perseverance specimen rotation scientist David Shuster said the rocks, spaced about 66 feet (20 meters), offer a wide variety of specimens, but each is of high scientific value. However, both examples have something in common.
“Both of these rocks are composed of sediments carried by liquid water,” Shuster said, and both rocks have experienced water-containing changes. “Thus, these rocks formed and recorded signs of a habitable environment.”
Using the tool called Raman & Luminescence Scan Habitable Environments for Organics and Chemicals, or SHERLOC, to analyze the area where the rover collected samples, the team found the highest concentration of organic matter ever during the mission. Organic matter, considered the building blocks of life, can be created by processes involving life, but also other conditions that do not involve life, such as geological activity.
Perseverance SHERLOC instrument scientist Sunanda Sharma said, “If this is a treasure hunt for potential signs of life on another planet, organic matter is a clue. And we’re getting stronger clues as we progress through our Delta campaign.” Said. “Personally, I find these results very moving because I feel like we are in the right place with the right tools at a crucial moment.”
The samples are the size of a pinky finger and are stored in tubes until the next mission from Perseverance collects Martian rocks in 2030.
What’s ahead? A critical robotic era
The rover’s biggest job is yet to come.
Perseverance continues to take rock core samples and explore potential sample landing sites for a robotic sample return mission.
To bring the first samples from Mars back to Earth, NASA and the European Space Agency have a detailed plan that includes a fleet of robots, including the Perseverance rover, a new Martian lander, a sampler spacecraft, and two small helicopters.
The two space agencies simplified the original Mars sample return campaign mission and eliminated a sample return rover and its associated lander. NASA and ESA executives said they changed the plan because of Perseverance’s expected longevity and the success of the Ingenuity helicopter, which completed 29 flights to Mars.
Thomas Zurbuchen, Deputy Director of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, said the plan is to always have two methods of getting samples back to Earth; this method, using Perseverance or another rover to cycle.
The plan is to use two small helicopters as a backup option and Percy as the primary, rather than an additional rover. The rover is the primary means of transporting samples to the Sampling Vehicle, which will carry the Mars Ascension Vehicle and ESA’s robotic transfer arm.
Percy will also place a sample cache in the river delta as an “insurance policy” option before moving to an older terrain on Mars. Future missions could take these examples.
The ultimate goal is to bring back the first Martian soil and rock samples to Earth for detailed analysis.
Bringing the rock cores back to Earth is the surest way to confirm the organic matter the scientific team believes they’ve found in Martian rock samples, Sharma said.
“Obviously, the tools we have on the rover are extraordinary, and the fact that we’re able to make these observations of organic molecules on Mars, first of all, is just wonderful,” Sharma said. Said. “But really what’s going to be different here on Earth is the level of spatial detail.”
Lori Glaze, NASA’s head of planetary science, said the rover’s findings so far told the team they had chosen the right place to explore on Mars.
“All of the work completed so far by this incredible team of Perseverance tells me we’re not only going to the right place, but also sending the right spacecraft with the right scientific instruments to explore this magnificent ancient setting on Mars.” said Glaze.
In the next few months, Perseverance will explore an area known as Enchanted Lake to collect more samples.
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