Mars rover Perseverance finds ‘treasure trove’ of organic matter

Several recently collected samples contain organic material that indicates that 3.5 billion years ago years ago, the Jezero crater, which most likely once contained a lake and a delta flowing into it, contained a potentially habitable environment.

“The former deltaic rocks we studied have the highest concentration of organic matter ever detected by the mission,” says Ken Farley, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

The rover’s mission, which began 18 months ago on the Red Planet, involves searching for signs of ancient microbial life. Perseverance collects rock samples that may have preserved these telling biological signatures. There are currently 12 rock samples on board the rover.

Finally, in the fourth decade of this century, several space missions will bring this collection to Earth.

Exploring the Delta

It is because of the former delta that the 45 km diameter Jezero crater is of particular interest to NASA scientists. A fan-shaped geological formation here where a river once met a lake preserves the history of Mars in layers of sedimentary rock.

The rover explored the crater floor and found signs of igneous rock. During the last five months of the second delta survey campaign, Perseverance found abundant layers of sedimentary rock that further add to the history of the ancient Martian climate and environment.

“The delta, with its various sedimentary rocks, contrasts perfectly with the igneous rocks found on the crater floor, formed by the crystallization of magma,” says K. Farley. – This juxtaposition allows us to have a good understanding of the geological history after the formation of the crater and to obtain a diverse set of samples. For example, we found sandstone that contains fragments of rocks formed far from the Jezero crater.”

One of the rocks sampled by Perseverance was named Wildcat Ridge by the mission team. Wildcat Ridge). This rock was likely formed when soil and sand settled in a saltwater lake as it evaporated (all billions of years ago).

The rover collected a sample of the rock surface and analyzed it with an instrument called Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC).

The analysis revealed that the organic minerals are likely to be aromatic compounds or stable carbon and hydrogen molecules associated with sulfates. Sulfate minerals, often found in sedimentary rock layers, preserve information about the aquatic environment in which they formed.

Organic molecules on Mars are interesting because they represent the building blocks of life, such as carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. However, not all organic molecules are formed by life, some of them can also be formed during spontaneous chemical processes.

“While the mere detection of this class of organic matter doesn’t mean that life really existed there, this data set is starting to look like some of the things we’ve seen here on Earth,” says Sundana Sharma, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. – Simply put, if the search is on for possible signs of life on another planet, organic matter would be a clue to that life. And we’re getting more and more clues as we run the delta campaign.”

Perseverance – as well as the Curiosity rover – have found organic material on Mars before. But this time, they were found in an area where life could once have existed.

“In the distant past, the sand, soil and salts that now make up the Wildcat Ridge sample were deposited under conditions that allowed life to flourish,” says Farley. “The fact that organic matter was found in a sedimentary rock like this, which we know has preserved the fossils of ancient life on Earth, is significant.” However, as powerful as our rover’s instruments are, further conclusions about what is in the Wildcat Crest sample will have to wait until it is returned to Earth and studied in detail as part of the agency’s planned Mars sample return campaign.”

Returning samples to Earth

The samples collected so far from the main crater and delta areas are so diverse that the Perseverance team is interested in depositing some of the collection tubes at a designated site on Mars in about two months, K. Farley says.

After leaving a repository with samples on Mars, Perseverance will continue to explore the delta.

Future missions will be able to collect these samples and return them to Earth for analysis using the most sensitive and advanced instruments on the planet.

“Having spent most of my career studying the habitable environment and geology of Mars, I know well the incredible scientific value of returning carefully collected Martian rocks to Earth,” said Laurie Leshin, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The fact that the Perseverance samples are weeks away from being deployed and only a few years away from being brought back to Earth for scientists to study in detail is truly phenomenal. We will learn a lot.”

Once the samples reach labs on Earth, they could reveal insights into a potentially habitable Martian environment — such as the chemical composition, temperature and when the material was deposited in the lake.

Adapted from CNN.

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