Mars Perseverance Rover discovers organic matter in rock

This story is part Welcome to Marsour series exploring the red planet.

In just a year and a half on Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover has completely changed its scientific mission. The agency held a briefing Thursday to discuss highlights of the mission so far, and it was a celebration of the rock samples and the discovery of organic matter.

Organic Molecules in Wildcat Ridge

A rock named Wildcat Ridge, located in an ancient region of the Jezero Crater River delta, was one of the stars of the show. Percy successfully collected two samples of the mudstone rock. Wildcat Ridge is particularly exciting because the organic molecules (called aromatics) found there are thought to be a potential biosignature, which NASA describes as a substance or structure that could be evidence of past life but may also have been produced without the presence of life.

The rover team stressed that finding organic matter does not mean they have found evidence of ancient life. Organic molecules have already been spotted on Mars, by the Curiosity rover in Gale crater and also by Perseverance, which found molecules containing carbon earlier in the mission.

Perseverance collected two cores from Wildcat Ridge and also abraded a round piece to inspect the rock with its Sherloc instrument.


The rover’s Sherloc instrument investigated the rock. (Sherloc stands for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals.) “In its analysis of Wildcat Ridge, the Sherloc instrument recorded the most abundant organic detections of the mission to date,” NASA said.

Scientists see familiar signs in the Wildcat Ridge analysis. “In the distant past, the sand, mud and salts that now make up the Wildcat Ridge sample were deposited under conditions where life could potentially have thrived,” Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley said in a statement. communicated. “The fact that organic matter was found in such sedimentary rock – known to preserve fossils of ancient life here on Earth – is significant.”

Perseverance is not equipped to find definitive evidence of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet. “The reality is that the burden of proof for establishing life on another planet is very, very high,” Farley said at the press conference. For that, we need to examine the rocks of Mars up close and in person in laboratories on Earth.

Sample drop

Percy currently has 12 rock samples on board, including the pieces from Wildcat Ridge and samples from another delta sedimentary rock called Skinner Ridge. He also collected igneous rock samples from earlier in the mission that indicate the impact of ancient volcanic action in the crater.

NASA is so pleased with the diversity of samples collected that it plans to soon bring some of the filled tubes to the surface in preparation for the future. Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign. MSR is an ambitious plan to send a lander to Mars, retrieve the samples from Percy, lift them off the surface, and return them to Earth for further study. The mission is under development. If all goes as planned, these rocks could be here by 2033.

The complexity and importance of the MSR means that NASA and its partners are working on ways to ensure the samples can be collected. There is hope that Perseverance will still be functioning in good condition by the time the MSR lander arrives, and will be able to meet it and personally deliver samples. Leaving a few samples on the ground so early in the mission at a cache site in the crater will give MSR another opportunity to get the valuable rocks on board.

Percy collected paired samples. For example, he could keep one Wildcat Ridge tube on board and drop the other on the ground. “The fact that we are weeks away from deploying the fascinating Perseverance samples and only a few years away from arriving on Earth so that scientists can study them in exquisite detail is truly phenomenal,” said Laurie Leshin, Director of JPL. from NASA. “We will learn so much.”

What’s next for Percy

As exciting as the delta has been, the rover team envisions future adventures beyond. Perseverance could wander the crater rim, with the team considering several possible paths for ascent. His companion Ingenuity Helicopter is in good health and should be back in the air.

NASA chose Jezero Crater for exploration because of its fascinating history of water and how the rocks there could retain evidence of ancient life, if it existed in more habitable times on Earth. March. Sherloc scientist Sunanda Sharma likened the mission to a scavenger hunt for organic life on another planet, saying the samples containing aromatics are a clue. The Martian mystery is just beginning to unfold.

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