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Tech in space: Mars rover sees hints of past life in the latest rock monsters

NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has detected the highest concentrations of organic molecules yet, in a potential signal from ancient microbes that scientists are eager to confirm when the rock samples will eventually be brought to Earth.

Although organic material has been found on the Red Planet before, the new discovery is considered particularly promising because it came from an area where sediment and salts were deposited in a lake — conditions in which life could have emerged.

“It’s very fair to say that these will be the most valuable rock samples ever collected,” David Shuster, a Perseverance return sample scientist, told reporters at a briefing.

Organic molecules — compounds made up mostly of carbon and usually containing hydrogen and oxygen, but sometimes other elements as well — aren’t always made by biological processes.

Further analysis and conclusions will have to wait for the Mars Sample Return mission – a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to return the rocks set for 2033.

Nicknamed Percy, the rover landed on Mars’ Jezero crater in February 2021, tasked with caching samples that may contain signs of ancient life, as well as characterizing the planet’s geology and past climate.

The delta it explores was formed 3.5 billion years ago. The rover is currently investigating sedimentary rocks there, which were formed by particles of various sizes that settled in the then watery environment.

Percy drilled two samples out of a rock called “Wildcat Ridge,” which is about three feet wide, and on July 20 sanded down part of the surface so it could be analyzed with an instrument called SHERLOC that uses ultraviolet light.

The results revealed a class of organic molecules called aromatics that play a key role in biochemistry.

“This is a search for possible signs of life on another planet,” said NASA astrobiologist Sunanda Sharma.

“Organic matter is a clue and we’re getting stronger clues… 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.”

There have been other tantalizing clues about the possibility of life on Mars before, including repeated detection of methane by Perseverance’s predecessor, Curiosity.

While methane is a digestive byproduct of microbes here on Earth, it can also be generated by geothermal reactions where no biology is involved.

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