Figure 1: the discovery of evidence for past life on Mars is likely to lend some credibility to the theory that life still exists there today.
  • Perseverance has started drilling into the floor of the Jezero crater.
  • The mission of Perseverance is committed to the quest for life.
  • Martian soil sample return to Earth.
  • Martian atmosphere was quite dense, the climate was warm enough, and liquid water flowed on its surface

Perseverance is on Mars

February 18th was a big day not only for NASA but for the entire world. NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully landed in the Jezero crater on Mars. Moreover, it transmitted its first image immediately as soon as it touched the Martian surface. Pictures from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter were then seen with footage taken by the rover’s entry, Descent and Landing (EDL). Then there was the panoramic video, sound recording, and the deployment of the Ingenuity helicopter, all in a week’s time!

What Happens Now?

One of Perseverance’s primary goals is to look for signs of historical life on Mars. What effect would it have if microbial fossils are discovered beneath Martian surface? The Perseverance rover is NASA’s ninth mission to go to Mars. This rover is tasked with characterizing the geology, atmosphere, and climate of Mars. Not only that, but it will help pave the way for human exploration. Furthermore, Perseverance is also focused on astrobiology, which refers to the study of life throughout the Universe. Mars is a major focus of our astrobiological efforts as the next most-habitable place in our Solar System beyond Earth (WILLIAMS, 2021).

Signs of any Biosignatures?

As Gentry Lee, the chief engineer for the Planetary Science Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained in a JPL press release:

“To quote Carl Sagan, ‘If we see a hedgehog staring in the camera, we would know there’s current and certainly ancient life on Mars, but based on our past experiences, such an event is extremely unlikely. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the discovery that life existed elsewhere in the universe would certainly be extraordinary’”. Because of the many rovers, orbiters, and landers that have visited Mars in the past, scientists now understand that billions of years ago, Mars was a much different place than it is today. Martian atmosphere was quite dense, the climate was warm enough, and liquid water flowed on its surface. This led to many of the features that are observable today, like the preserved river delta in the Jezero crater. This feature suggests that Jezero was once a lakebed with water flowing into it about 3.5 billion years ago. As a result, sediment accumulated over time, resulting in the creation of a clay-rich river delta. Although the lake may have vanished, scientists believe that biosignatures may still exist somewhere in the 45 km (28 mi) deep crater, waiting to be discovered.

Simple Life form on Mars

Given Mars’s brief window of habitability, only basic lifeforms (such as single-celled bacteria) are likely to have arisen. Microbialites, sedimentary deposits composed of carbonate mud that develop with the aid of photosynthetic cyanobacteria, are some of the oldest evidences for life on Earth (WILLIAMS, 2021).

Said Ken Williford, the deputy project scientist for the Perseverance mission:

“We expect the best places to look for biosignatures would be in Jezero’s lakebed or in shoreline sediments that could be encrusted with carbonate minerals, which are especially good at preserving certain kinds of fossilized life on Earth. But as we search for evidence of ancient microbes on an ancient alien world, it’s important to keep an open mind.”

Figure 2: Artist’s impression of water under the Martian surface. Credit: ESA/Medialab

Martian Soil Trading

Perseverance can collect rock core samples in metal tubes and store them in a supply cache using its specialized suite of scientific instruments (which will be retrieved by a future mission sent by the ESA). The rover’s cameras, especially the one mounted on the mast and capable of zooming in to inspect targets, are among these instruments (Mastcam-Z). The SuperCam instrument, which is also on the mast and uses a small laser to analyse promising research targets, is yet another tool. This is accomplished by using a laser to produce small clouds of plasma clouds, which are then analysed to determine the chemical composition of the target. The Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) and the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instruments are the names for these instruments. The former searches for chemical biosignatures using short x-ray bursts, while the latter uses its own laser to detect concentrations of organic molecules and minerals produced in watery environments. These two instruments will work together to produce high-resolution maps of atoms, minerals, and molecules in Martian rocks and sediments, which astrobiologists will use to decide which samples to collect and return to Earth. According to Bobby Braun, the Mars Sample Return programme manager at JPL:

“The instrumentation required to definitively prove microbial life once existed on Mars is too large and complex to bring to Mars. That is why NASA is partnering with the European Space Agency on a multi-mission effort, called Mars Sample Return, to retrieve the samples Perseverance collects and bring them back to Earth for study in laboratories across the globe.”

 “We have strong evidence that Jezero Crater once had the ingredients for life. Even if we conclude after returned sample analysis that the lake was uninhabited, we will have learned something important about the reach of life in the cosmos,” said Williford. “Whether or not Mars was ever a living planet, it’s essential to understand how rocky planets like ours form and evolve. Why did our own planet remain hospitable as Mars became a desolate wasteland?”

(WILLIAMS, 2021)

Figure 3: This illustration shows Jezero Crater — the landing site of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover — as it may have looked billions of years ago on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What happens if and when it succeeds?

The mission of Perseverance is committed to the quest for life. It is assembled with the most cutting-edge technology that modern science has to offer. As a result, the question inevitably arises: what happens if and when it succeeds? Dr. Tanja Bosak, a professor of geobiology at MIT and the group leader of their Program in Geology, Geochemistry and Geobiology, is also the Returned Sample Science Lead for the NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance mission. As she told Universe Today via email:

“The most direct test of the genetic relatedness of any martian and terrestrial life would come from the comparisons of the information molecules (DNA, RNA) and the presence of such molecules in anything we find… In the best-case scenario, we’d find fossils of microbes or some such biosignature, but DNA and RNA do not preserve over billions of years, i.e., from the time when surface life was possible in Jezero crater. However, if we see something that looks like fossil cells upon sample return, and detect some organic biosignatures, that would automatically support the similarities between past life on Mars and life on Earth.”

The data collected by the Perseverance rover and the sample it will collect will provide an important piece of the puzzle, but it will not be the final word on the subject. After all, looking for life on Mars is similar to looking for meaning in the universe.

Bibliography

  • WILLIAMS, M. (2021, 03 03). What Happens if Perseverance Finds Life on Mars? . Retrieved from universetoday.com: https://www.universetoday.com/150222/what-happens-if-perseverance-finds-life-on-mars/

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