NASA's Perseverance rover has discovered "diverse" traces of "preserved organic matter" in a Martian crater, giving us tantalizing insights into the carbon cycle of the Red Planet and its potential to host life.
As detailed in a new paper published in the journal Nature, researchers examined data picked up by the rover's SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) instrument, and found signs of organic molecules in all of the instrument's ten targets.
While it's still far from a confirmation that Mars was once teeming with life — the researchers are careful to note that the molecules may have been the result of processes unrelated to life — it's yet another fascinating glimpse into the Red Planet's ancient history.
The organic molecules "are an exciting clue for astrobiologists, since they are often thought of as building blocks of life," study lead author Sunanda Sharma, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, told Space.com.
The discovery builds on previous detections of similar organic molecules by Perseverance's predecessor Curiosity, which has been exploring the same general area as Perseverance since 2012.
"Our results support observations by previous robotic missions to Mars that the Red Planet was once rich in organic material, compounds made primarily of carbon and hydrogen, and that some of that organic material can still be detected billions of years later," study co-author and NASA astrobiologist Joseph Razzell Hollis told Gizmodo.
"Each detection, each observation, gives us a little bit more information that brings us closer to understanding the history of Mars and whether it could have supported life in the past," he added.
Perseverance's SHERLOC instrument revealed these molecules by scanning two rock formations on the floor of the Jezero Crater, an area that is believed to be an ancient, dried-up lake bed.
What really caught the attention of the researchers was how these molecules occurred in different patterns, suggesting they were created through numerous distinct natural mechanisms.
"Seeing that the possible organic signals differ in terms of type, number of detections and distribution between the two units of the crater floor was surprising and exciting," Sharma told Space.com. "That opens the possibility of different formation, preservation or transportation mechanisms across the crater and, more broadly, the surface of Mars."
The researchers found that these molecules may have originated around 2.3 billion to 2.6 billion years ago, a considerable span of time.
Now, the researchers are hoping to bring some of the samples picked up by Perseverance all the way back to Earth so they can perform more advanced analysis.
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