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Perseverance Mars rover discovers abundance of organic molecules

NASA says its Perseverance rover is finding organic molecules on ‘every target’ that it observes, providing further evidence to suggest that Mars was once teeming with life.

New data from NASA’s rover, Perseverance, has reinforced suggestions that life may have existed on Mars billions of years ago.

A press conference was held last Thursday to showcase the findings.

Perseverance has discovered a variety of organic modules in Jezero Crater, an ancient lake bed the rover first landed in last year. According to NASA, it found these organic modules on every target it scanned, implying that they’re in abundance across the planet.

Organic modules have been discovered before by NASA using the Curiosity rover, but not at this level of detail or specificity. Perseverance has a new, high tech instrument called Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) that can label and identify different minerals and molecules.

SHERLOC found aromatics, which are ring-shaped organic molecules, in a core collected from a rock at Wildcat Ridge in Jezero Crater. This core contains a rich sedimentary record of minerals. These include salt and sulphates, buried in the lake three billion years ago when water existed. It’s crazy stuff, right?

Perseverance drills out sample cores from a range of terrain across Jezero Crater. This area of Mars features a river delta system which could have once harboured life. These samples are intended to eventually be brought back to Earth by a different rover on a new mission and it’s hoped that the cores can then be studied in labs to identify specific microbes.

Twelve samples have so far been collected and studied, providing a glimpse into a time when Mars was nutrient-rich.

Sunanda Sharma, a SHERLOC scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spoke during Thursday’s briefing. She said it was ‘clear that we are uncovering a bigger story that’s happening in Jezero Crater.’

‘We’ve found signals that we think are possibly from organic matter on ever target that we’ve observed. It aligns with what we’ve learned from studies on Earth of Martian meteorites.’

One exciting footnote, however, is the identification of these molecules in very harsh environments. It would seem Mars is teeming with resilient, life-harbouring materials. It’s not enough to say whether life did exist on the planet, but it gets us closer to definitively understanding whether we’re alone in the universe.

‘I personally find these results so moving because it feels like we’re in the right place with the right tools at a very pivotal moment,’ says Sharma.

We’ll need to wait until these cores return to Earth but it’s exciting news nonetheless. Perhaps all those sci-fi imaginations of Martians weren’t so far off, after all.