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NASA rover on Mars in new search for evidence of ancient microbial life             

The current mission sets out determine if there is – or was – microbial life on Mars.

An illustration provided by NASA of the Mars InSight lander.
An illustration provided by NASA of the Mars InSight lander.

What’s next for the quest for microbial life on Mars? This centres on Perseverance, the car-sized Mars rover designed to explore the Jezero crater on the red planet. The rover is part of NASA’s current Mars mission.

Briony Horgan, a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at Purdue University has been tasked with leading a new phase of Perseverance’s exploration of long-dry lake shoreline on Mars.    

This means the Mars rover will move to unfamiliar territory as its mission turns toward its next opportunity to find ancient signs of life on the red planet. Perseverance will begin searching for evidence of ancient microbial life in Mars’ rock record in deposits along the margin areas around Jezero Crater. This is close to where the rover initially landed.

Any life that once existed on the red planet may have left behind chemical clues that the scientists hope can still be found in the deposits as part of the rover’s “margin campaign.”

Horgan indicates that the new region could be like a “bathtub ring” that extends around up to a third of the crater’s inner margin. Furthermore. orbital data suggest it is filled with deposits of carbonate minerals, comparable to different shoreline or beach areas on Earth.

Carbonates offer the potential to hold and preserve evidence of life that may have existed in the shallow water believed to have been along the shoreline area. On Earth, deposits produced by microbial growth and metabolism have been important components of carbonate sediments. The same may apply to Mars.

Mars Ingenuity helicopter given new scouting mission
This NASA photo shows the Perseverance Mars rover in a selfie with the Ingenuity helicopter, seen here about 13 feet (3.9 meters) from the rover – Copyright AFP TAUSEEF MUSTAFA

The rover landed in February 2021 in Jezero Crater, just north of the Martian equator. The crater used to contain a lake about the size of Lake Tahoe. Horgan led a study of the mineralogy of the site, which produced one of the results that contributed to the selection of Jezero Crater for the mission.    

The margin area is one of the main exploration targets for the mission, which has been ongoing for more than two and a half years. For the next phase, there are plans to examine a river channel that cut through the rim of Jezero Crater. The rover is expected to collect samples of carbonate from the margin region.    

Perseverance also will attempt to find igneous rocks that have been altered to form carbonate, providing an opportunity to address additional astrobiological and environmental aspects of Mars’ geological record. This occurs since carbonate minerals commonly form in certain bodies of water on Earth when the water chemistry favours their precipitation.

Understanding the rocks on Mars, their evolution and history, and what they reveal about the history of planetary conditions on Mars helps researchers understand how life may have arisen.

The process can be mediated, or the precipitation of minerals caused, by the action of microorganisms that inhabit the water. Carbonates form on Earth in very shallow water, and these are useful for trapping signs of microbial activity because these shallow zones are fed by light and nutrients coming in.

The scientists will study the textures of the carbonate to determine the potential it holds for signs of life.    

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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