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NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finds Ancient Carbon Signature on Mars

NASA Mars
NASA’s Curiosity Rover found an ancient trace of life on Mars. Credit: NASA CC BY-NC 2.0

A piece of sediment discovered by NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Sunday contained carbon — a possible trace of ancient life on the Red Planet.

Carbon is a tell-tale sign of much bigger life processes, as carbon is the building block of organisms and goes through its own carbon cycle to recycle atoms everywhere in the environment on Earth. Carbon moves from the atmosphere to the ground and then back to the atmosphere.

Thus, researchers can use carbon atoms to trace a larger story of ancient life on Mars. The Curiosity Rover first touched down on the Gale Crater on Mars in August 2021. The crater, which is 96 miles long, was created by a meteor that struck Mars’s surface roughly 3.5 billion to 3.8 billion years ago. The crater is believed to have once been a lake.

Curiosity drilled into the sediment of the Gale Crater between August 2021 and July 2021. The rover then heated those samples to 1,562 degrees Fahrenheit, and the elements contained in the samples separated, releasing the carbon atoms.

“The samples extremely depleted in carbon 13 are a little like samples from Australia taken from sediment that was 2.7 billion years old,” said Christopher H. House, lead study author and professor of geoscience at Pennsylvania State University, in a statement.

“Those samples were caused by biological activity when methane was consumed by ancient microbial mats, but we can’t necessarily say that on Mars because it’s a planet that may have formed out of different materials and processes than Earth.”

Mars rock gets caught in Perseverance Rover

NASA’s Mars Rover Perseverance got a rock sample lodged in its “throat” while collecting debris in December. The rover, which collected the sample at the end of last month, has been unable to fully process the rock.

“I recently captured my sixth rock core and have encountered a new challenge. Seems some pebble-sized debris is obstructing my robotic arm from handing off the tube for sealing/storage. More images and data to come. #SamplingMars takes perseverance,” read a statement posted to Twitter by the mission’s team members on Friday.

Perseverance is a six-wheeled, car-sized rover that is currently in the process of collecting Red Planet rock samples, of which this stuck pebble is the sixth. Problems arose when Perseverance attempted to transfer the sample, contained inside a titanium tube, into a “bit carousel,” a moving structure located on Perseverance’s chassis. It was during this pass-off that the sample got lodged in the rover’s machinery.

“The designers of the bit carousel did take into consideration the ability to continue to successfully operate with debris,” wrote Louise Jandura, chief engineer for sampling and caching at NASA’s Jet propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, in a blog post.

“However, this is the first time we are doing a debris removal, and we want to take whatever time is necessary to ensure these pebbles exit in a controlled and orderly fashion,” Jandura explained.

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