Scientists at NASA have made a major Mars discovery as the Perseverance rover, which has been exploring the Red Planet for signs of ancient life, has collected several samples of organic matter from what once used to be an ancient river delta. The US Space Agency is planning a future mission to retrieve the samples collected the rover, bringing the first pieces of Mars back to Earth.
Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley said during a press conference: “The rocks that we have been investigating on the delta have the highest concentration of organic matter that we have yet found on the mission.
“And of course, organic molecules are the building blocks of life, so this is all very interesting that we have rocks that were deposited in a habitable environment in a lake which carry organic matter.”
With these four samples that were gathered at the delta, which was believed to once be a former lakebed, the Mars rover has now acquired a total of 12 samples.
This fan-shaped delta lies in the Jezero crater, which was the landing site of the NASA rover, and was formed about 3.5 billion years ago at a convergence point between a Martian lake and a river.
Currently, the Perseverance rover is studying the river delta’s sedimentary rocks, which like on Earth were formed when the once water filled regions carried a lot of particles of various sizes, which settled down over time.
During the Rover’s first science campaign it explored the floor of the Jezero crater, discovering igneous rock, which forms deep underground from magma or as a result of volcanic activity at the surface.
In its current campaign, NASA is investigating the river delta, where it has discovered organic materials. While such matter has previously been found by both the Perseverance and the Curiosity rover, the latest discovery was made in a region where sediment and salts were deposited into a lake billions of years ago.
The researchers believe that these sediments were deposited under conditions where life may have potentially existed.
READ MORE: Mars life mystery unravels as NASA investigates ‘enchanted lake’
Prof Farley noted in one instance, they discovered sandstone had carried grains and rock fragments created far from Jezero Crater, and also a mudstone which contained organic compounds.
In July, the rover collected samples from the surface of the Wildcat Ridge and analysed them with an instrument known as Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, or SHERLOC.
Through their analysis, NASA found that the samples contained a type of organic molecules that are correlated with those of sulfate minerals. These minerals, found in layers of sedimentary rock, could tell researchers a lot about the watery environments in which they were formed.
SHERLOC scientist Sunanda Sharma, during the press briefing: “This correlation suggests that, when the lake was evaporating, both sulfates and organics were deposited, preserved and concentrated in this area.
“I personally find these results so moving because it feels like we’re in the right place with the right tools at a very pivotal moment.”
NASA has said the organic particles that it discovered contain a wide range of compounds comprised of primarily carbon, along with hydrogen and oxygen, and some nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington, said in a press release: “We picked the 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.
“These first two science campaigns have yielded an amazing diversity of samples to bring back to Earth by the Mars Sample Return campaign.”