On February 18, 2021, Perseverance made landfall inside the Jezero Crater, located 45 kilometers (28 miles) wide on the Red Planet, which is thought to have formerly been home to a sizable lake and river delta. While searching the crater for evidence of extinct life, the rover has gathered and stored dozens of samples in preparation for a potential return to Earth.
Marking its 1,000th Martian day on the Red Planet, NASA’s Perseverance rover recently completed its exploration of the ancient river delta that holds evidence of a lake that filled Jezero Crater billions of years ago. The six-wheeled scientist has collected 23 samples to date, revealing the geologic history of this region of Mars in the process.
One sample called “Lefroy Bay” contains a large quantity of fine-grained silica, a material known to preserve ancient fossils on Earth. Another, “Otis Peak,” holds a significant amount of phosphate, often associated with life as we know it. Both of these samples are also rich in carbonate, which can preserve a record of the environmental conditions from when the rock was formed.
According to a statement, scientists from the Universities of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Oslo have uncovered new information regarding the formation of sediment layers on the crater floor through the use of the rover’s Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment (RIMFAX) instrument.
Sedimentation took place two separate times, resulting in sediment layers on the crater floor resembling Earth’s strata layers in that they are regular and horizontal. According to the announcement, portions of the silt deposits formed a large delta due to fluctuations in the lake’s water levels, which Perseverance crossed between May and December 2022.
“We picked Jezero Crater as a landing site because orbital imagery showed a delta – clear evidence that a large lake once filled the crater. A lake is a potentially habitable environment, and delta rocks are a great environment for entombing signs of ancient life as fossils in the geologic record,” said Perseverance’s project scientist, Ken Farley of Caltech. “After thorough exploration, we’ve pieced together the crater’s geologic history, charting its lake and river phase from beginning to end.”
Their findings were published today (Jan. 26) in Science Advances.
To decide which samples to collect, Perseverance first uses an abrasion tool to wear away a patch of a prospective rock and then studies the rock’s chemistry using precision science instruments, including the JPL-built Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL.
At a target the team calls “Bills Bay,” PIXL spotted carbonates – minerals that form in watery environments with conditions that might be favorable for preserving organic molecules. (Organic molecules form by both geological and biological processes.) These rocks were also abundant with silica, a material that’s excellent at preserving organic molecules, including those related to life.
“On Earth, this fine-grained silica is what you often find in a location that was once sandy,” said JPL’s Morgan Cable, the deputy principal investigator of PIXL. “It’s the environment where, on Earth, the remains of ancient life could be preserved and found later.”
Perseverance’s instruments are capable of detecting microscopic, fossil-like structures and chemical changes that ancient microbes may have left, but they have yet to see evidence for either.
JPL, managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.
For more about Perseverance: mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/
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