A preliminary analysis of one of the new rock samples collected by the Perseverance rover in the Jezero crater amazed the NASA project team. This soil contained the largest number of organic molecules ever found on Mars.

Organic molecules are compounds composed primarily of carbon, usually with hydrogen and oxygen, as well as other elements. They are basic to all life on our planet, but they are not exclusive — there are non-biological processes that can form them.

Researched breeds close-up. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Now Mars is a dry and cold planet, but billions of years ago (and maybe even quite recently) water flowed on it. One of the large rivers flowed into what we now call the Jezero crater. The rocks explored by Perseverance are dried deposits that were once silt. And on July 20, the rover once again scanned the rock, named Wildcat Ridge, and found a lot of organic molecules.

In the distant past, the sand, mud, and salt that now make up the Wildcat Ridge sample were deposited under conditions that could potentially support life.

The fact that organic matter was found in the kind of sedimentary rock that fossils of ancient life are found on Earth is significant. However, as effective as our instruments aboard Perseverance are, further conclusions about what is contained in the Wildcat Ridge sample will have to wait until it returns to Earth for in-depth study as part of the agency’s Mars sample return campaign.

Ken Farley

Caltech, Perseverance Project

Two Perseverance samples taken. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The rover took two rock samples the size of a piece of school chalk. A mission to return these samples is expected to be launched sometime in the early 2030s.

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