NASA’s Perseverance rover has collected several “tantalizing” rock samples from an ancient river delta on Mars, setting the stage for an expanded future mission that aims to retrieve the specimens and return them to Earth.
Agency officials said on Thursday that four “scientifically convincing” rock samples were collected from Jezero Crater, an area on Mars where a river and lake converged billions of years ago, making it a prime place to look for signs of ancient microbial life. .
Scientists won’t be able to study the specimens up close until they’re brought to Earth, likely sometime in the 2030s, but NASA said some of the rocks contain the highest concentrations of organic matter detected so far by the Perseverance rover.
“Personally, I find these results so moving because it feels like we’re in the right place with the right tools at a very crucial time,” Sunanda Sharma, a mission scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news briefing Thursday.
The presence of organic molecules — usually made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen — doesn’t necessarily mean life once existed on the Red Planet, but organic matter is considered the key ingredients for life.
Ken Farley, a Perseverance project scientist at the California Institute of Technology, said researchers don’t yet know the significance of the discoveries, but added it’s “interesting” to find rocks containing organic matter in the habitable environment of Jezero Crater. .
“These rocks are exactly the kind of rocks we came to investigate, both with the rover and its scientific instruments and to bring back to Earth so they can be studied in terrestrial labs,” he said.
Perseverance has explored the 28-mile-wide basin of Jezero Crater since it landed on Mars in February 2021. The rover previously found igneous rocks, likely formed deep underground by volcanic processes, on the crater floor. Perseverance is now examining sediment samples along the fan-shaped delta, thought to have formed 3.5 billion years ago from an ancient river flowing into Jezero.
“This amazing rover has collected a truly enticing array of rocks with extraordinary scientific potential,” Laurie Leshin, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the briefing.
For example, Perseverance has identified a 10-foot-wide mudbrick called Wildcat Ridge, which contains organic compounds and was likely formed billions of years ago when mud and sandy sediments were deposited in an evaporating lake.
Perseverance has so far collected 12 “scientifically convincing” rock cores, along with a sample of the Red Planet’s atmosphere.
The rover’s mission to the surface of Mars is the first step in the so-called Mars Sample Return campaign, a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency. Subsequent missions will send another spacecraft to Mars to collect the samples and return them to Earth for more detailed analysis.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com