Life on Mars? NASA’s Perseverance probe begins an unprecedented search for signals – 05/17/2022

NASA’s Persevering spacecraft has reached a key moment in its mission to Mars. On Tuesday (17/5), the six-wheeled robot will begin climbing an ancient delta into the crater where it has landed.

NASA’s Persevering spacecraft has reached a key moment in its mission to Mars. On Tuesday (17/5), the six-wheeled robot will begin climbing an ancient delta into the crater where it has landed.

It will roll uphill, pausing every now and then to examine rocks that seem to bear signs of past life on this planet.

On the way back, Perseverance will collect some of these rocks, and place the samples at the base of the delta to be retrieved on later expeditions. The goal is to return this material to Earth in 2030 for further analysis.

“The Delta in Jezero Crater is the main astrobiological target for persistence,” Katie Stack Morgan, deputy scientist on the project, told the BBC.

“These are the rocks that we think have the most potential to contain signs of ancient life, and they can also tell us about the climate of Mars and how it has evolved over time,” she said.

The spacecraft made a stunning landing in the middle of the 45-kilometre crater on February 18, 2021.

Since then, the spacecraft has been testing instruments and instruments, flying an experimental small helicopter and gathering a general impression of the site.

But the main goal of the robot in going to the site on the Red Planet has always been to study the huge pile of sediment to the west of Jezero Island.

Based on satellite images, scientists believe it is a delta. Initial observations of persistence on the ground have now confirmed this assessment.

Deltas contain fine-grained rocks laid in layers - NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS - NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS

Deltas contain fine-grained rocks that are deposited in layers

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

A delta is a structure formed by silt and sand that is flooded by a river when it enters a larger area of ​​water. The sudden slowing down of the river’s flow allows any suspended object to fall.

In the case of Jezero, the largest body of water was probably a wide-crater lake that had existed billions of years ago.

“Rivers flowing into the delta bring nutrients beneficial to life, and it is clear that the fine sediments that are brought in and deposited at a high rate in the delta are good for conservation,” explains expedition scientist Sanjeev Gupta, from Imperial College London, UK.

“Also, if there was life inside, it would have been carried downriver and concentrated in the delta.”

In recent days, perseverance has shifted toward a “slope” in the delta dubbed the Hawksbill Gap. This is a gentle slope that will take the robot to a height of a few dozen meters above the floor of the crater.

The spacecraft has a powerful set of tools and instruments in its robotic arm - NASA / JPL-Caltech - NASA / JPL-Caltech

The probe has a powerful set of tools and instruments on its robotic arm.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ascent is a reconnaissance mission. Perseverance will “go” in search of the most interesting rocks.

“The spacecraft contains an amazing set of tools that can tell us about chemistry, mineralogy and the structure of the delta by examining sediments down to the size of a grain of salt,” says mission scientist Briony Horgan of Purdue University in the US state. Indiana.

“We will learn about the chemistry of this ancient lake, whether its water was acidic or neutral, whether it was a habitable environment and what kind of life it might support.”

Let’s be clear: No one knows if there is life on Mars, but these three or four rocks that perseverance will gather at the bottom of the crater will probably find signs – if any.

Illustration showing Jezero Crater as it would have looked billions of years ago if it were a lake - NASA / JPL-Caltech - NASA / JPL-Caltech

The illustration shows Jezero Crater as it would have looked billions of years ago if it were a lake

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The robot itself is unlikely to be able to reach final conclusions – no matter how ingenious its tools are. Even on Earth, where we know that microbial life has been around for billions of years, evidence for its first fossilized forms is difficult to interpret, and remains controversial.

Determining whether there is life on Mars will have to wait until the rocks reach Earth for a detailed analysis that only the largest labs are equipped to do.

“The claim that there is microscopic life on another planet in our solar system is huge. And so the evidence has to be huge as well,” says Jennifer Trosper, director of the NASA Perseverance Project.

“I don’t think the instruments that we have on their own can provide that level of proof. They can provide something like, ‘We think this could be it,'” and then, when we bring the samples back to Earth and use them, she told BBC News, “More advanced machines we can certainly “.

Illustration of samples leaving Mars bound for Earth on a rocket launched from Jezero Crater - NASA - NASA

Illustration of samples leaving Mars bound for Earth on a rocket launched from Jezero Crater

Photo: NASA

At the end of the year, the Perseverance is expected to deposit a first set of rocks when it returns to the crater floor. This will include not only rocks collected during the hawksbill’s descent, but four samples collected in previous months at the bottom of the crater.

NASA, along with the European Space Agency, is in the advanced stages of planning the missions needed to capture these sedimentary rocks and send them back to Earth. Those projects — which include another probe, a Mars rocket, and a carrier spacecraft — are scheduled to be launched later this decade.

Perseverance still has years of work. After depositing the first stockpile of rocks, the spacecraft will return to the Hawksbill Gap to the summit of the delta and beyond, to visit rocks that appear to be the remnants of the shoreline of ancient Lake Jezero.

These deposits consist of carbonate minerals, and again, they appear to have formed in an environment favorable to recording past life on Mars – if it ever existed.

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