NASA’s Perseverance rover is investigating the geologically rich terrain of Mars

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. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

NASA’s Perseverance rover has entered its second science expedition, collecting core rock samples from landmarks within an area scientists have long considered one of the best 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 rover “These two first science expeditions yielded an amazing diversity of samples for return to Earth through the Mars Sample Return campaign,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA in Washington.

The Jezero Crater is twenty-eight miles (45 kilometers) wide and 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 specimens. For example, we found sandstone bearing grains and rock fragments created far from the Jezero Crater – and a mudstone that includes a curiosity. organic compounds. “

Credit: JPL

“Wildcat Ridge” is the name given to a rock about 3 feet (1 meter) wide that likely formed billions of years ago as fine clay and sand settled in an evaporating saltwater lake. On July 20, the rover scraped some of the surface of Wildcat Ridge so it could analyze the area with a tool called Scanning Enable Enicultures with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, or SHERLOC.

SHERLOC analysis indicates that the samples are characterized by a class of organic molecules which are spatially related to those of 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 chemical processes Which 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.

NASA's Perseverance rover is investigating the geologically rich terrain of Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover has collected rock samples for possible future return to Earth from two locations seen in this image of Mars’ Jezero Crater: “Wildcat Ridge” (lower left) and “Skinner Ridge” (top right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

In 2013, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover found evidence of organic matter in rock powder samples, and perseverance has detected 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. “fact that organic matter Finding it in such sedimentary rocks – known to preserve fossils of ancient life here on Earth – is significant. However, as capable as our instruments aboard the Perseverance are, more conclusions about what is in the Wildcat Ridge sample will have to wait until it is brought back to Earth for in-depth study as part of the agency’s Mars sample return campaign.”

The first step in NASA-ESA (European Space Agency) Mars sample return campaign began when Perseverance drilled its first rock sample in September 2021. Along with StoneSamples, the rover collected one sample of the atmosphere and two witness tubes, all stored in the rover’s belly.

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. “Being weeks away from releasing amazing specimens of perseverance and only years of bringing them to Earth so that scientists can study them in great detail is truly extraordinary. We will learn a lot.”

HASCAM image of NASA’s Persevering Mars rover: ‘Enchanted Lake’ in Jezero Crater

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