November 28, 2022

Brighton Journal

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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is digging for clues in the search for life

Suspension

On the floor of a shallow crater on Mars, it was NASA rover Perseverance Hitting what scientists hope is dirt push. Martian rocks excavated by the rover show signs of a watery past and are loaded with the kind of organic molecules that form the basis of life as we know it.

Scientists collaborating on the mission also say that the rock samples, which the rover temporarily stored in tubes for future return to Earth, have the right chemical formula. Preserving evidence of ancient Martian life, if it ever existed.

The new perseverance research is detailed in three extensive studies published Wednesday, one in Science and two in Science Advances. The The journal reports are highly technical and devoid of hype — daring to be boring as dirt — but the scientists involved have translated it into a more exciting story.

“It’s amazing. In almost every rock we find organic material,” said Abigail Allwood, a geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who manages the rover and the broader Mars sample return mission.

One study concluded that the rocks in the crater experienced three different events in which they were exposed to water.

“Crucially, the conditions in the rock during each time water migrated through it could support small communities of microorganisms,” lead author Michael Tice, a geologist at Texas A&M University, said in an email. “We won’t know until we bring the samples back to Earth,” he added in a later interview.

On February 18, 2021, NASA successfully landed the rover on Mars. Here is a live video of the landing. (Video: NASA, Photo: NASA/NASA)

perseverance made a Bulls eye drop at Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, and has been scouring it ever since, caching rock samples along the way for later examination on the ground. This is an ambitious, multi-stage mission that will require NASA and its partner, the European Space Agency, to send another rover to the surface of Mars with the ability to launch samples into orbit. The spacecraft then transports those samples back to Earth for laboratory research. The exact timeline is yet to be determined, but NASA hopes to get the samples back home in the early 2030s.

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This study of Mars is part of the flourishing field of youth Astrobiology, which includes the search for potentially habitable worlds and the first example of extraterrestrial life. Despite the efforts of generations of scientists, and regardless of the claims of UFO aficionados, detecting extraterrestrial life remains an aspiration.

Even finding organics – life-friendly molecules with a mixture of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – is a far cry from detecting life or even proving its existence in the past. These molecules can be either biological or non-biological in origin.

Mars remains front and center in NASA’s research because it has many favorable traits. Mars may have been more like Earth about 3 billion years ago, with much warmer and wetter conditions. Life may have existed on Earth and Mars at one time, and it likely originated on Mars and spread to Earth via meteorites. And although the surface is now a wasteland, the planet could have liquid water in large quantities below the surface, and Maybe a “mysterious” life.

Although the Perseverance rover does not have tools for the chemical detection of living organisms if they exist today, its tools give scientists the ability to study the surface of Mars at a level of detail not possible before.

A new paper closely examining the chemistry of Mars has presented a surprise to geologists. They assumed that they would excavate a group of sedimentary rocks. Instead it is volcanic rock.

Jezero Crater was formed in an impact event – a rock that smashed into Mars – at least 3.5 billion years ago. The shallow pit had apparently had water for a long time. This can be determined from orbital images that show the remnants of a delta where the river flowed into the lake. Planetary geologists hypothesized that the floor of the crater was once covered in sedimentary rock, formed from dirt and debris that slowly accumulated at the bottom of the lake.

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If these sedimentary rocks ever existed, they are now gone. It may have worn out, Tice said. The lack of sedimentary rocks could mean that the lake was short-lived, which would be disappointing for astrobiologists. Life as we know it needs water, and it takes time for more complex life forms to evolve. If the lake had not lingered, life might have struggled to take root.

The volcanic rock is not disappointing, the scientists said, because it preserves a lot of information about Mars’ past, including the presence of organic molecules. The presence of organic matter on Mars has been confirmed on previous missions, but its exact nature and chemistry cannot be discerned by this kind of long-range research and would require laboratory examination on Earth, said Bethany Elleman, a planetary scientist at Caltech and a co-author of two of the new papers. .

“Are they just organic material from this kind of washing out of the system — maybe from meteorite material that was just part of the water? “.

She added that the rover “collects an impressive array of samples to reveal the environmental history of Mars in all its forms — volcanic history, water history, and the relationship of organic matter to those water-rich environments.”

All of this is an attempt to solve the fundamental mystery of Mars: What went wrong? How, when and why did this seemingly habitable planet turn into such an inhospitable place? The Red Planet may not be a dead planet—the coroner’s report is incomplete—but it sure looks like a planet.

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Scientists point to something that Mars lacks today: a global magnetic field like Earth’s. Such a field protects Our atmosphere is protected from the corrosive effects of the solar wind – high-energy particles steadily flowing from the sun that can strip lighter particles. Mars also lacks plate tectonics, the geological process that on Earth recycles the crust and continues to spew water and nutrient-rich lava through active volcanoes.

Somewhere along the way, Mars’ magnetic field died, and then ended It became a different kind of planet. It has lost almost all of its atmosphere. It has become a very cold desert world. How quickly this happens is unknown. But this is something the volcanic rocks in the crater might reveal.

The magma contains an amount of iron, which is sensitive to the planet’s magnetism. When the lava cools, it crystallizes into igneous rocks, causing the electrons within the iron-bearing minerals to freeze into patterns that can reveal features of a magnetic field, such as its direction.

Benjamin Weiss, an MIT planetary scientist and co-author of two of the papers, said in an email, “In general, we’re actually very lucky to have igneous rocks in the crater, and that we landed directly on them, because they’re ideal for determining ages and studying the past history of the magnetic field.” to Mars.”

Once a mission can send its precious rock collection back to Earth, scientists may finally be able to see if life has found a foothold on Mars — which could raise new questions about whether life, despite the planet’s dramatic transformation, has ever existed. Somehow I managed to persevere.