This is the most abundant detection to date of organic matter on the Red Planet.
The discovery has taken place in one of the points where it is expected to find signs of ancient microbial life
The Martian SUV perseveranceone of the robotic inhabitants dedicated to exploring the red planet, has detected remains of organic matter in an ancient lake on Mars. It is not the first time that the space exploration vehicle has found this type of compound, but according to the experts, it is the most abundant detection to date of some molecules that could potentially be an indicator of ancient microbial life.
Does this mean that Perseverance has found traces of life on Mars? The answer is no. Organic molecules are a class of compounds made primarily of carbon and generally include hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, or sulfur atoms. To explain the presence of this type of compound in an environment like Mars, there are at least two possible explanations. The first, and perhaps the most feasible, is that they have been formed through a inorganic chemical reaction (in which no form of life has mediated). The second explanation is that it is a potential “biological signature”. That is, a substance or structure that could be evidence of a past life form.
One more piece of information to understand the relevance of this finding is, precisely, the place where it occurred. Perseverance has found these remains of organic matter in the Jezero Crater on Marsa ancient martian lake that in its day was a humid environment and that at this time still preserves the sediments of that body of water. The organic compounds have been traced from a study of some sedimentary rocks found in this site, which according to the scientists is one of the most promising candidates for the search for ancient microbial life forms.
“The fact that organic matter was found in a sedimentary rock, known for preserving fossils of ancient life here on Earthit’s important,” explains Ken Farley, one of the scientists in charge of the Perseverance project. But before declaring victory over the implications of this possible discovery, Farley recalls that to know if these compounds are (or not) a sign of extraterrestrial life We will have to wait for the additional analyzes that will be carried out when, in a few years, these rocks are brought to Earth.
Perseverance’s latest find came during its second Mars exploration campaign, focused on the jezero crater. The space exploration vehicle has spent several years collecting rock core samples of features within an area considered by scientists to be one of the best prospects for finding signs of ancient microbial life on the red planet. To date, the rover has collected a dozen rock samples from different points of the Martian geology.
In 2013, the Curiosity rover found evidence of organic matter in samples of Martian rock dust, and Perseverance has detected organic matter in Jezero Crater before.. In this case, as the experts explain, the organic compounds detected are much more abundant than in previous studies. The first analyzes suggest that these are organic molecules spatially correlated with those of the sulfate minerals.
The discovery announced this week, to be even more specific, has been tracked in a rock named ‘Wildcat Ridge’a formation about 1 meter wide which probably formed billions of years when mud and fine sand settled in this Martian lake of evaporating saltwater.
In its more than 45 kilometers of extension, Jezero Crater hosts an ancient delta that was formed a few years ago 3.5 billion years at the convergence of a Martian river and a lake. Perseverance is currently investigating sedimentary rocks delta, formed when particles of various sizes settled in the once-aqueous environment. During its first science campaign, the rover explored the crater floor and found igneous rocks that form deep underground from magma or during volcanic activity on the surface.
“We chose Jezero Crater for Perseverance to explore because we thought it had the best chance of provide scientifically excellent samplesand now we know we sent the rover to the right place,” he explains, in a press release, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA in Washington. “These first two scientific campaigns have produced an amazing diversity of samples to bring back to Earth,” says the space agency spokesman.
“The delta, with its various sedimentary rocks, contrasts beautifully with igneous rocksformed from the crystallization of magma, and discovered on the crater floor,” says Farley. As the scientist explains, this juxtaposition gives us a rich understanding of geological history after the crater formed and a diverse set of samples. For example, we found a sandstone that carries grains and rock fragments created far from Jezero Crater, and a shale that includes intriguing organic compounds.