STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has collected and saved samples of rocks on the base of an historical river delta fanning out from the rim of Jezero Crater made up of minerals and natural compounds that, on Earth, would doubtless protect traces of previous microbial life, researchers stated Thursday.
But to seek out out if any such “potential biosignatures” embody precise traces of previous life on Mars, scientists must look ahead to a NASA-European Space Agency mission on the finish of the last decade to gather them and produce them again to Earth for detailed laboratory evaluation.
“The samples that we’ve collected as we presented here today … have ingredients for life in terms of the environmental setting,” stated David Shuster, a Perseverance return pattern scientist on the University of California.
The materials was transported into Jezero Crater by water and deposited right into a 25-mile-wide lake with superb particles that settled out amid phases of evaporation, elements that mix to “have high potential for biosignature preservation.”
“If these situations existed, I believe, just about wherever on Earth at any time limit over the past … three and a half billion years, I believe it’s secure to say, or not less than assume, that biology would have finished its factor and left its mark in these rocks for us to look at.
“And so that’s really why we’re so excited to be able to address these questions upon returning these samples to laboratories here on Earth,” Shuster stated. “We have all of the right ingredients here.”
The $2.4 billion Perseverance rover landed in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, and has spent the previous 18 months working its manner towards the bottom of a fan-like delta chopping by way of the rim the place water as soon as rushed in to fill a broad, now-vanished pool the dimensions of Lake Tahoe.
Perseverance is provided with a set of refined devices designed to review the traditional lakebed deposits, looking out for traces of previous microbial life that may have filtered right down to be preserved in what at the moment are layers of sedimentary rock.
Along with giving scientists a possibility to remotely survey the rocks and sandy soil of Jezero, Perseverance additionally is provided with a fancy assortment and caching mechanism that may retailer greater than 40 samples of soil and rocky cores, sealing them in small environmentally closed tubes to await transport again to Earth.
If all goes nicely, a joint pattern return mission being developed by NASA and the European Space Agency will land one other spacecraft close to Perseverance round 2030 and both acquire the saved samples from the rover or use two small helicopters to select up pattern tubes Perseverance can have dropped onto the floor.
The samples will likely be loaded onto a small rocket and blasted into Mars orbit the place they are going to be captured by one other spacecraft and returned to Earth for evaluation to find out if any of the “potential biosignatures” are precise traces of previous microbial life.
“Mars sample return stands maybe the best chance ever of answering a very profound question: are we alone in the universe?” stated Sunanda Sharma, a researcher on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who works with one of many rover’s devices.
Perseverance has been working in close to flawless style since its touchdown 559 Mars days in the past. In an early shock, the rover discovered igneous rock nicely away from the rim of Jezero Crater the place scientists had anticipated to seek out sedimentary lakebed layers.
“What we found is igneous rocks, rocks that were crystallized from a melt,” stated Project Scientist Ken Farley. “This crater not only held the lake at one point, but prior to that, likely prior to that, it also had active volcanism, and possibly even a lava lake filling that crater. So there’s some complexity there that we hadn’t actually expected.”
After accumulating samples of the igneous deposits, which can enable scientists to ultimately decide how previous the formations are, Perseverance headed towards the the bottom of the delta and located the sedimentary deposits it was searching for.
“This specific area has probably the highest scientific value for exploration of the entire mission,” Farley stated. “This is the site that brought us to Jezero Crater. This is the place where we have the best chance to explore these ancient sedimentary rocks deposited in the lake.”
The rocks there “were deposited in a potentially habitable environment … and we have been seeking potential biosignatures.”
But he rapidly cautioned that “a potential biosignature is something that may have been produced by life, but also could have been produced in the absence of life. The key point about a potential biosignature is it compels further investigation to draw a conclusion.”
And that additional investigation is laboratory evaluation on Earth after the pattern return mission will get again within the early 2030s.
Perseverance has collected a dozen samples so far, together with a pattern of the martian environment and two “witness tubes” to assist assess any contamination that may be current. The tubes are saved within the physique of the rover, and the science crew is debating the place to deposit an preliminary cache for later retrieval by the pattern return lander.
The rover ultimately will climb up on prime of the delta earlier than making its method to the shore of the traditional lake, accumulating extra samples alongside the way in which. Assuming Perseverance stays wholesome, it’ll rendezvous with the pattern return lander and hand off its trove of samples.