NASA announced on Thursday that the Perseverance rover has discovered organic matter on Mars that could be associated with life.
The rover successfully collected two samples from a rock with organic molecules (called aromatics) found in it. They are considered a potential biosignature, which NASA describes as a substance or structure that could be evidence of past life but may also have been produced without the presence of life.
The rock has been named Wildcat Ridge, and is located in an ancient river delta region of Jezero Crater of Mars.
NASA’s rover team emphasized that finding organic matter doesn’t mean it’s found evidence of ancient life. Organic molecules have been spotted on Mars before, by the Curiosity rover in Gale Crater and also by Perseverance, which found carbon-containing molecules earlier in the mission.
NASA: Abundant organic matter detections discovered on Mars ridge
The rover investigated the rock. “In its analysis of Wildcat Ridge, the Sherloc instrument (stands for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) registered the most abundant organic detections on the mission to date,” NASA said.
“In the distant past, the sand, mud and salts that now make up the Wildcat Ridge sample were deposited under conditions where life could potentially have thrived,” said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley in a statement.
“The fact the organic matter was found in such a sedimentary rock — known for preserving fossils of ancient life here on Earth — is important.”
Perseverance isn’t equipped to find definitive evidence of ancient microbial life on the red planet.
“The reality is the burden of proof for establishing life on another planet is very, very high,” said Farley during the press conference. For that, we need to examine Mars rocks up close and in person in Earth labs.
NASA is so happy with the diversity of samples collected that it’s looking into dropping some of the filled tubes off on the surface soon in preparation for the future Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign.
MSR is an ambitious plan to send a lander to Mars, pick up Perseverance’s samples, rocket them off the surface and bring them back to Earth for close study. The mission is under development. If all goes as planned, those rocks could be on Earth by 2033.