NASA's Mars Rover Collects Rocks That Boost The Case For Ancient Life

NASA's Resilience On September 6, the Mars rover gathered its first sample, dubbed "Montdenier," and on September 8, it collected its second, dubbed "Montagnac," from the same rock.

NASA's Mars Rover Collects Rocks That Boost The Case For Ancient Life
NASA's Mars Rover Collects Rocks That Boost The Case For Ancient Life

The Perseverance Mars rover has now gathered two rock samples that show signs of being in contact with water for an extended length of time, bolstering the argument for ancient life on Mars.

"It looks like our first rocks reveal a potentially habitable sustained environment," said Ken Farley, project scientist for the mission, in a statement Friday. "It's a big deal that the water was there for a long time." On September 6, the six-wheeled robot gathered its first sample, dubbed "Montdenier," and on September 8, it collected its second, dubbed "Montagnac," from the same rock. 

Both samples, which are roughly six centimetres long and slightly wider than a pencil, are currently kept in sealed tubes in the rover's interior. 
Early in August, a first effort at gathering a sample failed because the rock was too brittle to withstand Perseverance's drill. The rover has been operating in the Jezero Crater, which is located just north of the equator and was once home to a lake 3.5 billion years ago, when Mars was much warmer and wetter than it is now.

The rock that yielded the first samples was discovered to be basaltic in composition, indicating that it was most likely formed by lava flows. Radiometric dating is made easier by the presence of crystalline minerals in volcanic rocks. 

As a result, scientists may be able to piece together a picture of the area's geological history, including when the crater originated, when the lake came and dissolved, and how the temperature changed over time. 
At a press briefing, NASA geologist Katie Stack Morgan said, "An remarkable thing about these rocks is that they exhibit signs of sustained interaction with groundwater."

The scientists previously knew there was a lake in the crater, but they couldn't rule out the chance that it was a "flash in the pan," with floodwaters filling it up in as little as 50 years. They are now more confident that groundwater was present for a considerably longer period of time. 

"If these rocks were exposed to water for a long time, there may have been habitable niches within these rocks that might have supported ancient microbial life," Stack Morgan added. 

Small bubbles of old Martian water may have been trapped in the rock cores by salt minerals. "Salts are excellent minerals for retaining traces of past life on Earth," Stack Morgan continued, "and we expect the same to be true for rocks on Mars."

NASA is hoping to return the samples to Earth for in-depth lab analysis in a joint mission with the European Space Agency sometime in the 2030s.