This summer NASA’s Perseverance has been busy studying the Jezero Crater ancient river delta on Mars and it looks like it has hit jackpot. A preliminary analysis of one of the rock samples scooped up by the rover has the team amazed: the rock has the highest abundance of organic molecules found on Mars yet.
Organic molecules are compounds made primarily of carbon, usually with hydrogen and oxygen as well as other elements. They are the molecules that make up us as well as all the other life forms on our planet. But they are not exclusive to life. There are processes that can form them that are not biological.
These organic molecules became trapped in these rocks long ago. Mars is now a dry and frigid planet but billions of years ago (and maybe even more recently) water flowed. A river poured water into what we now call the Jezero crater, carving a delta of mud and silt. The rocks that Perseverance is now exploring are the dried sediments that were once mud. On July 20, Perseverance scanned a rock nicknamed “Wildcat Ridge” where it found a wealth of organic molecules.
“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 of Caltech said in a statement.
“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 are, 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.”
The sample return mission is expected to include multiple helicopters to help move the precious cargo and we can expect it sometime in the early 2030s.