Patience testing begins an unprecedented search for signs of life

Jonathan Amos – BBC News Science correspondent

Posted on 05/17/2022 11:19 / updated 05/17/2022 11:20

Resilience tests dig rocks and storage samples for analysis when you return to Earth - (loan: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

Resilience tests dig rocks and storage samples for analysis when you return to Earth – (loan: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

NASA’s Perseverance spacecraft has reached a crucial moment in its mission toward Mars. This Tuesday (17/5), the six-wheeled robot will begin climbing the old delta in the crater as it lands.

It will rise high, stopping constantly to examine rocks that appear to have traces of past life on the planet.

On our way back, Perseverance will collect some of these rocks, placing samples in the lower part of the delta to be taken by future missions. The goal is to bring this material back to Earth in the 2030s for further analysis.

“The Delta in Jezero Crater is Perseverance’s ultimate target for astrology,” the project’s deputy scientist Katie Stack Morgan told the BBC.

“These are the rocks that we believe have the greatest potential for traces of ancient life, and they can also tell us about Miriam’s weather and how it was over time,” he said.

The investigation landed surprisingly within 45 km of Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021.

Since then, the spacecraft has been testing tools and equipment, flying small experimental helicopters and collecting an overview of the site.

But the main purpose of the robot to go to the site on the Red Planet has always been to study the huge sediment hill west of Jesus.

According to satellite imagery, scientists suspect it is a delta. Preliminary observations of tolerance on the basis have now confirmed this assessment.

Rocks of Delta

NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / MSSS
Delta consists of rocks with fine particles laid in layers

Delta is a structure made of mud and sand thrown by a river as it enters a large body of water. The rapid slowdown that occurs in the river flow allows anything carried in the fall to stop.

In the case of Jezreel, the largest body of water was likely the largest volcanic lake that existed billions of years ago.

“Rivers flowing into the delta bring nutrients, which are essential for life, for sure; and so the fine sand that is brought and stored high in the delta is good for conservation,” explains mission scientist Sanjeev. Gupta, from Imperial College London, UK.

“Also, if there was life in the interior, it could be taken down the river and concentrated in the delta.”

In recent days, Endurance has moved on to the “path” in a delta called the Hawksbill Gap. This is a steep slope that will take the robot to a height of tens of meters above the volcanic floor.

Endurance robot hand

NASA / JPL-Caltech
The probe has a powerful set of tools and instruments on its robotic arm.

Climbing is a detective mission. Patience will “walk” in search of the most spectacular rocks.

“The spacecraft contains many amazing tools that can tell us about the chemistry, minerals, and structure of the delta by analyzing sand to the salt level,” says mission scientist Briony Horgan of Purdue University in the United States. Indiana.

“We will learn about the chemistry of this ancient lake, whether its waters were acidic or neutral, whether it was a living environment and what kind of life might be helpful.”

Let’s be clear: no one knows if there was life on Mars, but these three or four rocks that Patience will collect under the volcano will probably find a sign – if any.

Drawing of a lake in Jezreel

NASA / JPL-Caltech
The diagram shows Jezero Crater what it would look like billions of years ago if it were a lake.

It is unlikely that the robot itself will be able to reach a definite conclusion — no matter how clever its instruments may be. Even on earth, where we know that microbiology has been around for billions of years, the evidence of its first fossilized species is difficult to interpret, and it is still controversial.

To determine if there was life on Mars, you will have to wait until the rocks reach Earth for a detailed analysis of which only the largest laboratories have the equipment to carry out.

“The claim that there is life in a microscope on another planet in our Solar System is a big claim. And so the proof also needs to be greater,” says Jennifer Trosper, NASA’s Patience project manager.

“I don’t think the instruments we have alone can provide that level of validation. They can offer something like ‘we think this could be’, and then later, when we return samples to the world and use more. Modern instruments, we can be sure,” he told BBC News.

Sketch of samples emanating from Mars for Earth on a rocket fired from Jezero Crater

Sketch of samples emanating from Mars for Earth on a rocket fired from Jezero Crater

At the end of the year, patience is expected to set the first set of rocks when it returns to the volcanic floor. This will include not only the rocks collected during the Hawksbill descent, but four samples collected in the previous months under the crater.

NASA, together with the European Aeronautics Agency, are in the process of setting up a mission to take these rocks to Earth. The projects – which involve another exploration, a Mars rocket and a space shuttle – should be launched later this decade.

Patience still has years of work ahead of him. After setting up its first stone reserve, the vessel will return to the Hawksbill Gap over the delta and beyond, to visit the rocks that appear to be the remains of the ancient shores of Lake Jezero.

These deposits are made of carbon ore and, again, appear to have been created in an environment conducive to recording past lives in Mars – if they ever existed.

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