NASA may have collected the first evidence of life on Mars… but it will take us 10 years to find out.
Last week, NASA’s Perseverance Rover drilled into a rocky outcrop called Berea, which likely formed from deposits carried downstream by an ancient river that flowed well beyond the Jezero crater the Rover was exploring.
The rock is sedimentary and consists of carbonate minerals, which often contain fossils on Earth.
Earth’s carbonate rocks may be good at preserving fossilized life forms
NASA plans to return the samples to Earth, along with dozens of others it collects from Jezero crater – the site of an ancient Martian lake.
But the samples aren’t expected until 2033, meaning scientists will have to wait to find out if the precious cores contain evidence that life once existed on the planet.
Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for Perseverance at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said Berea rock is one of the best hopes for finding life.
“The rock is rich in carbonate,” she said. “Carbon rocks on Earth can be good at preserving fossilized life forms.
“If biosignatures were present in this part of the Jezero crater, it could be a rock like this that could very well hold their secrets.”
On Earth, Berea sandstone deposits are found in the U.S. states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky, and often contain fossils or trace fossils, such as small caves, that are hundreds of millions of years old.
No samples have ever been sent back from Mars, and the logistics of getting the tubes of rock home have proven tricky.
Originally, NASA planned to send a second rover to collect the samples, which would be left in depots by Perseverance.
But last year the plan was changed so that Perseverance would now drive the monsters directly to an ascent vehicle, where they would be blasted into space on the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV).
Two small helicopters will be on standby to pick up the loads should Perseverance run out of power.
Bringing alien monsters back to Earth carries risks
After the MAV launches, it will release a basketball-sized sphere containing the samples for collection by the European Space Agency’s Earth Return Orbiter, which opens its massive jaws to capture the metallic ball.
The orbiter will then head back home, with an expected landing in 2033.
Returning alien monsters to Earth carries the risk that Martian bacteria or viruses could escape, so scientists are designing a reentry module that can withstand a 2,000 G-force crash landing at speeds of up to 40,000 km/h in the desert of Mars. Utah.
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