Martian rocks that were once under water and could contain evidence of alien life are collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover
- Martian rocks that could contain signs of life collected by Perseverance rover
- The ancient samples have been altered by water that flowed over the Red Planet
- They have been have been stored by the robot and ready to be returned to Earth
- Scientists believe that a wet Mars may have supported life billions of years ago
Martian rocks that were once under water and could contain evidence of alien life have been collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover.
The ancient samples have been stored by the car-sized robot with the intention of returning them to Earth some time in the early 2030s.
Scientists said they had been altered by water that flowed over the Red Planet when it was a waterworld and may have supported life billions of years ago.
Professor Amy Williams, of the University of Florida, said: ‘We have organisms on Earth that live in very similar kinds of rocks.
‘And the aqueous alteration of the minerals has the potential to record biosignatures.’
The recovery of such samples is the first step in scientists’ quest to establish if Mars ever hosted life.
They were found on the floor of the Jezero Crater, where a large river delta once flowed into a lake.
Discovery: Martian rocks that were once under water and could contain evidence of alien life have been collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover (pictured)
The recovery of such rock samples is the first step in scientists’ quest to establish if Mars ever hosted life. This image shows the holes from the first successful sample taken by the rover
MARS: THE BASICS
Mars is the fourth planet from the sun, with a ‘near-dead’ dusty, cold, desert world with a very thin atmosphere.
Mars is also a dynamic planet with seasons, polar ice caps, canyons, extinct volcanoes, and evidence that it was even more active in the past.
It is one of the most explored planets in the solar system and the only planet humans have sent rovers to explore.
One day on Mars takes a little over 24 hours and a year is 687 Earth days.
Facts and Figures
Orbital period: 687 days
Surface area: 144.8 million km²
Distance from Sun: 227.9 million km
Gravity: 3.721 m/s²
Radius: 3,389.5 km
Moons: Phobos, Deimos
Etched into the rock are canyons created by raging rivers bigger than the Nile.
Valles Marineris, or Mariner Valley, is a vast canyon system that is six miles deep, 150 miles wide and runs along the Martian equator.
On Earth it would stretch from Los Angeles to New York, making it the longest canyon in the solar system.
Prof Williams said: ‘These kinds of environments on Earth are places where life thrives.
‘The goal of exploring the Jezero delta and crater is to look in these once-habitable environments for rocks that might contain evidence of ancient life.’
She is one of the long-term planners for the mission and helps decide where to send the rover and what tests and samples to prioritise.
Perserverance is equipped with a drill that bores into the sediment to collect potential evidence of fossilised microbes.
The rover is currently surveying the river delta to collect more samples for the Mars Sample Return mission.
Led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Perseverance landed at the bottom of the Jezero crater in February 2021.
Since then, scientists have explored the geological makeup of the crater floor using a suite of tools on board the rover that can take pictures of and analyse the chemical composition of rocks, as well as see their structure in the subsurface.
The US team discovered that the crater floor had eroded more than they expected.
The erosion exposed a crater made up of rocks formed from lava and magma, known as igneous rocks.
They also show evidence of having been altered by water.
‘From a sampling perspective, this is huge,’ said David Shuster, a professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley.
‘The fact that we have evidence of aqueous alteration of igneous rocks — those are the ingredients that people are very excited about, with regard to understanding environmental conditions that could potentially have supported life at some point after these rocks were formed.’
Perseverance project scientist Kenneth Farley, of Caltech, added: ‘One great value of the igneous rocks we collected is that they will tell us about when the lake was present in Jezero.
‘We know it was there more recently than the igneous crater floor rocks formed.
‘This will address some major questions: When was Mars’ climate conducive to lakes and rivers on the planet’s surface? And when did it change to the very cold and dry conditions we see today?’
Since Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater in February 2021, it has rolled around the margins of an area called Séítah. Red points indicate crater floor sampling locations, while blue points show the current locations of the rover and Ingenuity helicopter
Professor Amy Williams (pictured), of the University of Florida, said of the rock samples collected on Mars: ‘We have organisms on Earth that live in very similar kinds of rocks’
NASA and the European Space Agency are planning to return the rock samples to Earth around 2033.
The ambitious plan requires building the first vehicle that can launch from the surface of Mars and rendezvous with an orbiter that ferries the samples back to Earth.
The payoff for that herculean task will be highly detailed studies of the rock samples that cannot be performed on the rover, including measuring the age of the rocks and looking for signs of ancient life.
Because the rock samples taken at the bottom of the crater likely predate the river delta, dating these rocks will provide important information about the age of the lake.
Prof Williams added: ‘I am excited about what is coming next.’
The rocks from Perseverance’s exploration of the crater floor are described in the journal Science.
NASA MARS 2020: PERSEVERANCE ROVER AND INGENUITY HELICOPTER ARE SEARCHING FOR LIFE ON THE RED PLANET
NASA’s Mars 2020 mission was launched to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth in the earliest years of the evolution of the solar system.
Named Perseverance, the main car-sized rover is exploring an ancient river delta within the Jezero Crater, which was once filled with a 1,600ft deep lake.
It is believed that the region hosted microbial life some 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago and the rover will examine soil samples to hunt for evidence of the life.
Nasa’s Mars 2020 rover (artist’s impression) is searching for signs of ancient life on Mars in a bid to help scientists better understand how life evolved on our own planet
The $2.5 billion (£1.95 billion) Mars 2020 spaceship launched on July 30 with the rover and helicopter inside – and landed successfully on February 18, 2021.
Perseverance landed inside the crater and will slowly collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis.
A second mission will fly to the planet and return the samples, perhaps by the later 2020s in partnership with the European Space Agency.
This concept art shows the Mars 2020 rover landing on the red planet via NASA’s ‘sky-crane’ system
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