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The Perseverance rover has been exploring Jezero Crater since it arrived on Mars in early 2021. It made its way through the crater floor until this summer, when it arrived at the river delta, which was NASA’s reason for visiting Jezero in the first place. That decision seems to be paying off. NASA reports that Perseverance has collected several samples with the most abundant organic finds of the mission so far. Organic molecules could be an indicator of life, but we’ll have to wait until the samples return to Earth to know for sure.

Today, Mars has no permanent surface water, but this was not the case about 3.5 billion years ago. Jezero was a lake in those days, and the river delta still visible at its bottom could be an ideal place to look for evidence of ancient life. Perseverance explored the crater floor on its way to the delta, finding igneous rocks and some evidence of organic compounds. Curiosity also found organic matter on Mars. This in itself is not proof of life, but the team is excited by what they can find in the delta region.

On July 20, the rover scraped the surface of a meter-wide rock called “Wildcat Ridge.” The rover then scans the fresh material with an instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals). It reveals the presence of organic molecules which can provide significant information about the aquatic environment where they originally formed.

According to NASA, finding a high concentration of organic material in the delta is a good sign. It formed in a time and place where we believe life could have existed, and these molecules could be a “potential biosignature.” Of course, there are also chemical processes that can produce the same types of molecules. We won’t know what it is until someone can study the samples on Earth in detail.

So far, Perseverance has collected 12 samples from Mars with its sample caching system, including four from sedimentary rocks such as Wildcat Ridge in the delta region. These ultra-clean sample tubes will remain in the rover’s belly until the planned sample return mission begins. The NASA-ESA project recently moved one step closer to reality with the addition of two Ingenuity-like helicopters and the removal of a secondary rover. NASA currently expects the Sample Retrieval Lander to launch in 2028. Once the samples are on board, the Mars Ascent Vehicle will take them into orbit, where ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter will pick them up and return home.

These exciting new organics, along with other samples from the mission, could arrive on Earth as soon as 2033. On Earth, scientists will have access to all the tools and technology they need to fully study these samples. And maybe they’ll find evidence of long-extinct life on the red planet.

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