Scientists working on the mission also say the rock samples the rover cached in tubes for a future return to Earth have the right chemical recipe for doing so Preserve evidence of life on Mars, if it ever existed.
The new perseverance research is detailed in three large studies published Wednesday, one in the journal Science and two in the journal Science Advances. tea Journal reports are very technical and devoid of hype – they dare to be boring as dirt – but the scientists involved translate them into a more exciting story.
“It’s wonderful. We find organics in pretty much every rock,” said Abigail Allwood, a geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who operates the rover and the larger 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.
“Crucially, the conditions in the rock could have supported small communities of microorganisms each time water passed through,” said lead author Michael Tice, a geologist at Texas A&M University, in an email. In a subsequent interview, he added, “We won’t know until we return the samples to Earth.”
Perseverance landed right on the mark in Jezero Crater on February 2nd. December 2021 and has been roaming ever since, storing rock samples along the way for later study on Earth. This is an ambitious, multi-phase mission that will require NASA and its partner, the European Space Agency, to send another vehicle to the surface of Mars that can deliver samples into orbit. A spacecraft would then return these samples to Earth for laboratory testing. The exact timeline has yet to be determined, but NASA hopes to have the samples on home soil by the early 2030s.
This study of Mars is part of the blossoming of the fledgling field of astrobiology, which includes the search for potentially habitable worlds and the first example of extraterrestrial life. Despite the efforts of generations of scientists, and claims made by UFO fans notwithstanding, the discovery of life beyond Earth remains ambitious.
Even the search for organic matter—life-friendly molecules containing combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—is a long way from discovering life or even proving its presence in the past. Such molecules can be either biological or non-biological in origin.
Still, Mars is the focus of NASA’s search because it has many favorable properties. Mars was likely much more Earth-like about 3 billion years ago, with warmer and wetter conditions. Life may have once coexisted on Earth and Mars, and it is possible that it originated on Mars and spread to Earth via meteorites. And although the surface is now an arid wasteland, beneath the surface the planet could have substantial amounts of liquid water and possibly “cryptic” life.
Although the Perseverance rover does not have instruments capable of chemically detecting living organisms when they exist today, its instruments will allow scientists to study the Martian surface in a level of detail never before possible.
One of the new papers that takes a closer look at the chemistry of Mars has surprised geologists. They had assumed they would dig up some sedimentary rocks. Instead, the rocks are volcanic.
Jezero Crater was formed at least 3.5 billion years ago in an impact event – a rock that crashed into Mars. The shallow crater clearly had water in it a long time ago. This could be determined from orbital images showing the remains of a delta where a river entered the lake. Planetary geologists had assumed that the bottom of the crater was covered with sedimentary rock formed from soil and debris slowly accumulating at the bottom of the lake.
If there ever was such a sedimentary rock, it is now gone. It might have eroded, Tice said. The lack of sedimentary rock could mean the lake didn’t last very long, which would be disappointing for astrobiologists. Life as we know it needs water, and it takes time for more complex life forms to evolve. If the lake had not lingered, life might have struggled to take root.
The volcanic rocks don’t disappoint, however, as they hold much information about Mars’ past, including the presence of organic molecules, scientists said. The presence of organic material on Mars has been confirmed in previous missions, but its precise nature and chemistry cannot be discerned by this type of remote research and requires a laboratory study on Earth, according to Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at Caltech and a co-author of two the new article.
“Are they just organic matter that was washed into the system — maybe meteoric material that was just part of the water? That would be the least exciting. Or is it small pockets of microbial life that live in the cavities of these rocks? That would be the most exciting thing,” said Ehlmann.
She added that the rover is “collecting a magnificent set of samples to unveil the environmental history of Mars in all its forms — the volcanic history, the water history, the relationship of organic matter to these water-rich environments.”
All of this is an attempt to solve the fundamental mystery of Mars: what went wrong? How and when and why did this seemingly livable planet become such a harsh place? The Red Planet may not be a dead planet – the coroner’s report is incomplete – but it certainly resembles one.
Scientists point to something Mars lacks today: a global magnetic field like Earth’s. Such a field protects our atmosphere from the corrosive effects of the solar wind — high-energy particles that constantly emanate from the sun and can strip off lighter molecules. Mars also lacks plate tectonics, the geological process that on Earth recycles the crust and continues to spew water and nutrient-rich lava through active volcanoes.
Somewhere along the way, Mars’ magnetic field died, and then it became a different kind of planet. It lost almost all of its atmosphere. It became a cold desert world. How quickly this happened is unknown but that might be given away by the volcanic rocks in the crater.
Magma contains a certain amount of iron, which is sensitive to a planet’s magnetism. As lava cools, it crystallizes into igneous rock and freezes electrons in ferrous minerals into patterns that could reveal properties of a magnetic field, such as its orientation.
Benjamin Weiss, a planetary scientist at MIT and a co-author of two of the articles, said in an email, “All in all, we’re really, really lucky that there are magmatic rocks in the crater and that we just happened to land on it right there.” they are ideal for dating and studying the prehistory of the Martian magnetic field.”
Once the mission can ship its precious rock collection back to Earth, scientists may finally be able to tell if life ever took root on Mars — which would raise new questions about whether life somehow managed to, despite the planet’s dramatic transformation to survive .
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