NASA’s Perseverance rover has spent the past year and a half on Mars exploring an ancient lake bed called Jezero Crater.
Percy’s primary mission is to collect rock samples within a 45-kilometer-wide area that scientists have long considered the best place to look for signs of microbial life that may have existed 3.5 billion years ago.
“This mission is not looking for preserved living organisms that exist today,” said Ken Farley, researcher at the Perseverance project. “Instead, we look into the very distant past, when the climate of Mars was very different from today, and much more favorable for life.”
“Wildcat Ridge” is the name of a rock about 1 meter wide in the Martian crater Jezero, which is believed to be an ancient delta formed by the confluence of a river and a lake.
“In the distant past, the sand, mud, and salts that now make up the Wildcat Range pattern were deposited in conditions in which life could flourish. The fact that organic matter was found in such a sedimentary rock known for containing fossils of ancient on Earth is very important, says Farley.”
At this location, scientists say, Percy rubbed some surface areas on the Wildcat Ridge before taking a sample and analyzing it with the rover’s Habitable Environment Scanning System using Raman Light and Organic and Chemical Luminescence, or SHERLOC.
According to a NASA press release, “SHERLOC analysis showed that a class of organic molecules is present in the samples that are spatially correlated with sulfate mineral molecules.”
Percy’s analysis not only showed the presence of organic molecules, but what the team found was the highest concentration of organic matter ever on the mission. Organic molecules make up organic matter and are considered a key indicator of life, and by definition, any material originally produced by living organisms.
The Perseverance rover is not equipped with the necessary equipment to give a definitive answer as to whether it has evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars.
“The reality is that the burden of proving the existence of life on another planet is very, very high,” Farley said during a NASA press conference on Thursday. “To do this, we need to study Martian rocks up close and in person in terrestrial laboratories.”
The good news is that NASA has a plan to retrieve Percy’s samples in 2030. If all goes according to plan, we may see them on Earth in 2033. Until then, we can only guess at the question that worries everyone. “Was there life on the red planet?”.
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