Nasa’s Mars rover set to begin key mission to look for alien life

Rover to begin climb up ancient delta in Mars’s Jezero crater

Vishwam Sankaran
Tuesday 17 May 2022 07:03
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Water May Have Been On Mars More Recently Than We Thought

Nasa’s Perseverance Mars rover will begin to climb an ancient delta to look for sampling sites potentially containing ancient microbes and organics.

The six-wheeled rover will collect some of these rocks and place them at sites on the base of the delta, which is in the crater where it had landed, so they can later be retrieved by future missions to the Red Planet.

The American space agency had chosen the Jezero crater as a site for the rover’s landing site and for exploration missions after an exhaustive search by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) launched to survey the planet in 2005.

Scientists had predicted the area may have once been home to a river delta flooded with water and a possible location for the Perseverance rover to look for signs of ancient microbial life once it landed in February 2021.

Research, published in the journal Science in October using data from MRO, estimated how much water may have flowed into the Jezero crater about 3.7 billion years ago, leading to possible locations on the red planet where Perseverance could search for organic material and other molecules that are signatures of life.

Based on images taken by Perseverance shortly after it landed, scientists confirmed the landscape was indeed an ancient delta and also that it fed into an ancient Martian lake.

In the delta, Nasa also identified large boulders, some as wide as 1m (3ft) across and likely weighing several tons, and layers of fine-grained clay and mudstones that could potentially preserve traces of ancient life.

Perseverance is now moving towards a location named Devils Tanyard on the delta, where Nasa plans on using the rover’s instruments up close to investigate rocks and identify potential sampling sites.

From there, Nasa said the rover will ascend up the delta towards a location named Rocky Top.

Following this, the rover will again descend with its collections to three of the sites from where future missions are expected to return samples to the Earth in the 2030s for further studies.

While scientists said this ancient river delta may be the best place for the rover to look for signs of life, they also need to be picky because Perseverance has only 43 sampling tubes for collection.

The rover has already helped discover organic molecules in rocks on the Jezero Crater.

In a sample study in December, the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument aboard Perseverance helped find that organic material was not only on the interior of the sampled rock but also in the dust on other rocks.

Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported that bedrock from the crater has interacted with water “multiple times over the eons”.

The space agency, however, noted that the presence of organics does not necessarily mean that life once existed on Mars since both biological and non-biological mechanisms could be responsible for the presence of these molecules.

While no one clearly knows if life existed on Mars, Nasa said the rocks that Perseverance drills and collects on the way back down to the crater floor could unravel this mystery.

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