NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has collected two rock samples, with signs that they were in contact with water for a long period of time. This could be an important piece of evidence for the theory of the presence of ancient life at some point on Mars.
The first sample, which was collected on September 6, was named Montdenier while the second, Montagnac, was collected from the same rock on September 8.
The rover has been operating in a region known as the Jezero Crater, just north of the equator and home to a lake 3.5 billion years ago.
Although the team was certain that there was water at the location at some point in time, they could not rule out the possibility that that water was present only briefly, a “flash in the pan,” as they have been calling it, with floodwaters filling up the crater for as little as 50 years.
However, these samples, a few centimetres in both diameter and height, seem to be providing a reason for optimism.
“An interesting thing about these rocks as well is that they show signs for sustained interaction with groundwater,” NASA geologist Katie Stack Morgan told a press conference.
“If these rocks experienced water for long periods of time, there may be habitable niches within these rocks that could have supported ancient microbial life,” added Stack Morgan.
The salt minerals in the rock cores may have trapped tiny bubbles of ancient Martian water.
“Salts are great minerals for preserving signs of ancient life here on Earth, and we expect the same may be true for rocks on Mars,” added Stack Morgan.
Moreover, the basaltic nature of the rocks may be more good news. “The rock that provided the mission’s first core samples is basaltic in composition and may be the product of lava flows. The presence of crystalline minerals in volcanic rocks is especially helpful in radiometric dating. The volcanic origin of the rock could help scientists accurately date when it formed. Each sample can serve as part of a larger chronological puzzle; put them in the right order, and scientists have a timeline of the most important events in the crater’s history. Some of those events include the formation of Jezero Crater, the emergence and disappearance of Jezero’s lake, and changes to the planet’s climate in the ancient past,” said a statement by the space exploration organisation upon the matter.
NASA plans on an in-depth lab analysis in a joint mission with the European Space Agency sometime in the 2030s as the samples make their way to Earth.
Earlier, the first attempt at collecting a sample in August had failed after the rock proved too crumbly to withstand Perseverance’s drill.