NASA's Perseverance Mars rover has discovered carbon-containing organic compounds in some of the rocks it investigated on the floor of the Red Planet's Jezero Crater, according to a press release issued on Wednesday.
To be crystal clear, we can't count this as detection of life on Mars; rather, we have found life's building blocks, since organics can be produced by both biological and non-biological means.
Further research is required to determine the processes that formed the Jezero compounds.
Discoveries on the Jezero Crater
This is an important milestone for the NASA project, as the study team had been wondering if the rocks in the area were sedimentary or igneous even before Perseverance landed on Mars.
“I was beginning to despair we would never find the answer,” said Perseverance Project Scientist Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena. “But then our PIXL instrument got a good look at the abraded patch of a rock from the area nicknamed ‘South Séítah,’ and it all became clear: The crystals within the rock provided the smoking gun.”
The organic compounds were detected in the dust on non-abraded rock as well as the interiors of abraded rocks on the Jezero, which once contained a large lake and a river delta, using the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) instrument. The bedrock on which the Perseverance has been driving since landing in February was most likely formed by red-hot magma, and the team has stated that rocks in the crater have interacted with water several times over the eons and that some of them contain organic molecules.
This discovery has implications for understanding and precisely timing key events in the history of Jezero Crater and the Red Planet itself as a whole. At the same time, the preservation of organics inside ancient rocks, regardless of provenance, at Jezero suggests that potential biosignatures (evidence of life, past or present) might be preserved as well. With scientists having just made a world-historic discovery on Mars by finding significant amounts of water inside Mars' grand canyon system, this is another intriguing addition to our ever-evolving Red Planet puzzle.
"This is a question that may not be solved until the samples are returned to Earth, but the preservation of organics is very exciting," said Luther Beegle, SHERLOC principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
"When these samples are returned to Earth, they will be a source of scientific inquiry and discovery for many years."