Mars Rover Sampling Top Prospect for Signs of Ancient Microbial Life

NASA’s Perseverance rover is collecting many organic material rich rock-core samples. They are sampling a top prospect for finding signs of ancient microbial life on Mars. The rover has collected four samples from an ancient river delta in the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater since July 7, bringing the total count of scientifically compelling rock samples to 12.

“Wildcat Ridge” is the name given to a rock about 3 feet (1 meter) wide that likely formed billions of years ago as mud and fine sand settled in an evaporating saltwater lake. On July 20, the rover abraded some of the surface of Wildcat Ridge so it could analyze the area with the instrument called Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, or SHERLOC.

SHERLOC’s analysis indicates the samples feature a class of organic molecules that are spatially correlated with those of sulfate minerals. Sulfate minerals found in layers of sedimentary rock can yield significant information about the aqueous environments in which they formed.

What Is Organic Matter?

Organic molecules consist of a wide variety of compounds made primarily of carbon and usually include hydrogen and oxygen atoms. They can also contain other elements, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. While there are chemical processes that produce these molecules that don’t require life, some of these compounds are the chemical building blocks of life. The presence of these specific molecules is considered to be a potential biosignature – a substance or structure that could be evidence of past life but may also have been produced without the presence of life.

In 2013, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover found evidence of organic matter in rock-powder samples, and Perseverance has detected organics in Jezero Crater before. But unlike that previous discovery, this latest detection was made in an area where, in the distant past, sediment and salts were deposited into a lake under conditions in which life could potentially have existed. In its analysis of Wildcat Ridge, the SHERLOC instrument registered the most abundant organic detections on the mission to date.

3 thoughts on “Mars Rover Sampling Top Prospect for Signs of Ancient Microbial Life”

  1. I’m conflicted.

    On the one hand, it would be hugely cool to find evidence of past life, and if there was past life, there’s probably present life, at least underground. Odds are it would be Earth life, (Or Earth life is Mars life…) but maybe independently evolved, and that would be hugely informative.

    On the other hand, any evidence of life is going to result in a really heavy push to ban colonization. Turn Mars, and the rest of the solar system into a park and scientific preserve. That would be bad. And, who knows, Martian underground bacteria could actually pose some problems for the colonists, with them pumping up brines and incidentally warming the subsoil.

    Well, it will be what it will be. Hopefully they’re going to start including appropriate instruments on these probes, to settle the question.

    • The Mars rovers are deliberately sent to areas they actually don’t expect to find extant life, just signs of it previously existing. Planetary protection protocol dictates it.

    • There will very likely be a clash between Elon Musk’s very serious efforts to send people to Mars and the “planetary protection” folks. Discoveries made by these current rovers may be used.

      My bet would be they don’t slow Elon down by much. Nothing about NASA’s internal policies would do that, just interfere with NASA participation. NASA already risks seeming irrelevant with the coming contrast between Starship and SLS – which has not prevented NASA from using Starship as the Artemis lander.

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