Did Perseverance rover just find the first signs of life on Mars?

Over a year after exploring a crater that is believed to have been home to a lake and volcanic eruptions in its ancient past, the Perseverance rover might have finally hit the jackpot. Nasa in a briefing has said that the SUV-sized rover has picked up the most organic-rich material from the crater.

However, it does not mean there could have beenl ife. It simply means there could be chances of some unique discoveries hiding in the future when these samples arrive on Earth in the final years of this decade or the early years of the next. The rover has collected four samples from the ancient river delta, which is believed to be the top prospect for finding signs of ancient microbial life.

“The delta, with its diverse sedimentary rocks, contrasts beautifully with the igneous rocks formed from crystallization of magma discovered on the crater floor. This juxtaposition provides us with a rich understanding of the geologic history after the crater formed and a diverse sample suite. For example, we found a sandstone that carries grains and rock fragments created far from Jezero Crater and a mudstone that includes intriguing organic compounds,” Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley said.

What has Perseverance found?

It is known that organic molecules contain a wide variety of compounds made primarily of carbon and usually include hydrogen and oxygen atoms. These molecules also contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur, and the presence of these specific molecules is considered to be a potential biosignature a substance or structure that could be evidence of past life.

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The rover in July drilled on a unique rock that has been on Mars for billions of years. Dubbed Wildcat Ridge, the rock formed billions of years ago as mud and fine sand settled in an evaporating saltwater lake. The rover abraded some of the surfaces of Wildcat Ridge to analyse with Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC).

Perseverance rover acquired this image using its onboard Right Navigation Camera (Navcam). (Photo: Nasa)

What it found was a class of organic molecules that are spatially correlated with those of sulfate minerals. Nasa said that sulfate minerals found in layers of sedimentary rock can yield significant information about the aqueous environments in which they formed.

“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. The fact the organic matter was found in such a sedimentary rock known for preserving fossils of ancient life here on Earth is important. However, as capable as our instruments aboard Perseverance is, further conclusions regarding what is contained in the Wildcat Ridge sample will have to wait until it’s returned to Earth for in-depth study as part of the agency’s Mars Sample Return campaign,” Farley added.

Scientists are excited to analyse these rock samples when it arrives on Earth in the later years of this decade as a global program has been put in place to launch missions to the Red Planet o retrieve these samples.

Also Read | When life began and then suddenly ended in Earth’s oceans

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