NASA’s rover puts its robotic arm around a rocky outcrop called “Skinner Ridge” in Jezero Crater on Mars. Composed of multiple images, this mosaic shows layered sedimentary rocks facing a cliff in the delta, as well as one of the sites where the rover scraped a circular patch to analyze the rock formation. Source: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS
NASA’s Persevere rover explores the geologically rich terrain of Mars
NASA’s Persevering Rover is doing well The second scientific campaign, where core rock samples are collected from features within an area that scientists have long considered one of the most important possibilities for finding signs of ancient microbial life on Mars. The rover has collected four samples from an ancient river delta at Jezero Crater on the Red Planet since July 7, bringing the total number of scientifically influential rock samples to 12.
“We chose Jezero Crater for perseverance to explore because we thought it had the best chance of providing scientifically excellent samples—and now we know we sent the rover to the right location,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate director of science in Washington. “These two first scientific expeditions yielded an astonishing diversity of samples to be returned to Earth by Mars Sample Return Campaign. “
The Jezero Crater is twenty-eight miles (45 kilometers) wide, and it hosts a delta—an ancient fan-shaped feature that formed about 3.5 billion years ago at the confluence of the Martian River and lake. Perseverance is currently examining the sedimentary rocks of the delta, which formed when particles of various sizes once settled in an aquatic environment. During its first scientific expedition, the rover explored the floor of the crater, and found igneous rocks, which form in the depths of the earth from magma or during volcanic activity at the surface.
“The delta, with its diverse sedimentary rocks, contrasts beautifully with the igneous rocks—formed from the crystallization of magma—discovered in the crater floor,” said Ken Farley, Perseverance Project Scientist, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. “This juxtaposition provides us with a rich understanding of the geological history after the crater was formed and a variety of samples. For example, we found sandstone bearing grains and rock fragments created far from Jezero Crater – and a claystone that contains interesting organic compounds.”
“Wildcat Ridge” is the name given to a rock about 3 feet (1 meter) wide that likely formed billions of years ago where fine clay and sand settled in an evaporating saltwater lake. On July 20, the rover scraped some of the surface of the Wildcat Ridge so it could analyze the area with the tool called Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals, or SHERLOC.
SHERLOC analysis indicates that the samples feature a class of organic molecules that are spatially related to those of the sulfate minerals. The sulfate minerals in sedimentary rock layers can give important information about the aquatic environments in which they formed.
What is organic matter?
Organic molecules consist of a variety of compounds that are made primarily of carbon and usually include hydrogen and oxygen atoms. It can also contain other elements, such as nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur. While there are chemical processes that produce these molecules that do not require life, some of these compounds are the basic chemical building blocks of life. The presence of these specific molecules is a potential biosignature – a substance or structure that could be evidence of past life but may also have been produced without life.
In 2013, NASA’s Curiosity Mars probe was found Proof of organic matter In rock powder samples, perseverance has discovered organic matter in Jezero Crater before. But unlike the previous discovery, this latest discovery was made in an area where in the distant past sediments and salts were deposited in a lake under conditions in which life would have existed. In its analysis of Wildcat Ridge, the SHERLOC instrument recorded the most abundant organic finds on the mission to date.
“In the distant past, the sand, muck, and salts that now make up the Wildcat Ridge specimen were deposited under conditions where life would have thrived,” Farley said. “The fact that organic matter is found in such sedimentary rocks – known to preserve fossils of ancient life here on Earth – is important. However, as capable as our instruments aboard the Perseverance are, more inferences about what is in the Wildcat Ridge sample are They must wait until they are returned to Earth for in-depth study as part of the agency’s Mars sample return campaign.”
The first step in the European Space Agency (NASA) and ESA’s Mars re-sampling campaign began when Perseverance drilled its first rock sample in September 2021. Along with the core rock samples, the rover collected one sample of the atmosphere and two of Witness tubes, all of which are stored in the belly of the rover.
The geological diversity of the samples already carried on the rover is so good that the probe team is looking at depositing selected tubes near the base of the delta in about two months. After the cache is deposited, the rover will continue its delta explorations.
“I have studied Martian habitability and geology for most of my career and know firsthand the amazing scientific value of returning a carefully collected collection of Martian rocks back to Earth,” said Laurie Lichen, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “That we are weeks away from releasing amazing samples of perseverance and just years of bringing them to Earth so that scientists can study them in great detail is truly extraordinary. We will learn a lot.”
More about the mission
Astrobiology is one of the main goals of the persistence mission to Mars, including cache samples that may contain signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and store Martian rocks and regolith.
Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with the European Space Agency, will send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for deep analysis.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Lunar-to-Mars Exploration Approach, which includes the Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is operated by the California Institute of Technology for NASA, built and operated the rover’s operations.