NASA’s Perseverance rover has made an important discovery in a river delta on Mars. But now researchers have to be patient for a long time.
Pasadena – When the US space agency NASA selected an area called Crater Lake as the landing site for the Perseverance rover on Mars, those responsible already had a plan: they wanted to use a robot to explore the area based on images previously taken by space probes. they were made from what the river delta looked like. “Perseverance” has been exploring the delta since July 2022 – and is now providing particularly important samples.
“We chose Crater Lake for the Perseverance survey because we thought it had the best chance of obtaining scientifically excellent samples,” said NASA Science Director Thomas Zurbuchen, adding, “Now we know we sent the rover to the right place.” The Mars rover collected an “incredible variety of samples” that will be brought back to Earth by future Mars missions. “I think it’s safe to say that these are two of the most important samples we’ll collect on this mission,” said David Shuster, who is responsible for retrieving samples from Mars.
NASA’s Perseverance rover found organic material on Mars
The delta in which the Mars rover Perseverance is located formed about 3.5 billion years ago. It marks the place where the Martian river used to flow into the lake. The Perseverance rover is currently studying sedimentary rocks in the delta formed by the deposition of particles of various sizes in a once-humid environment. “The rocks we examined have the highest concentration of organic matter ever found during the mission,” Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley said at a NASA news conference. “Organic molecules are the building blocks of life, so it’s very interesting that we have rocks deposited in a lake in a habitable environment that contain organic material.”
According to NASA, SHERLOC’s “Perseverance” instrument already collected a sample on July 20 in which scientists found a class of organic molecules related to sulfate minerals. Sulfate minerals found in sedimentary rocks can provide important information about the aquatic environment in which they formed. “This relationship suggests that both sulfate and organic matter were deposited, preserved and concentrated in this area during the evaporation of the lake,” explains SHERLOC scientist Sunanda Sharma. “Personally, I find these results very moving because I feel we are in the right place at a very crucial time and with the right tools.”
Mars: Organic molecules found in a once habitable region
NASA uses the term “organic molecules” to describe a large number of compounds that are composed mostly of carbon and usually contain hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It may also contain other elements such as nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus. However, there are also chemical processes in which such molecules are formed without the involvement of biological life – such a finding is not necessarily a sign of earlier life on Mars. In fact, Perseverance and its predecessor, the Curiosity rover, have found organic material on Mars before. But the fact that it was found this time in an area that was proven to have had liquid water in the past, and which could therefore have been habitable, is a crucial clue for scientists.
The rocks we examined have the highest concentration of organic matter found during the mission to date.
“While the mere detection of this class of organic matter does not mean that life was definitely there, these observations are similar to some of the things we have seen here on Earth,” explains Sharma. “Simply put, when it comes to treasure hunting for potential signs of life on another planet, organic matter is lead. And as we move through the delta, we get stronger clues.”
NASA and ESA want to get soil samples from Mars to Earth
After such important findings, scientists would like to immediately get down to work and examine the material in detail. However, scientists will have to be patient for a while before they can conduct detailed research on the organic material found. “As capable as our instruments aboard Perseverance are, further conclusions about the contents of the sample will have to await its return to Earth,” says Farley.
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The so-called “Mars Sample Return” mission, which NASA is working on with the European Space Agency ESA, aims to collect the Mars samples collected by “Perseverance” using two small helicopter drones and bring them back to Earth – but until the exact date of 2030 has not yet been determined. (bookmark)