Could NASA’s Perseverance rover prove life on Mars?


Even if space missions normally leave you cold, this one really does matter.

The Mars Perseverance rover should help answer one of the most fundamental questions of all: is life on Earth unique?

The planet is desolate now. With its thin atmosphere, Mars is cold and sterile.

An artist's illustration of the spacecraft containing the Perseverance rover slowing down using the drag generated by travelling through the Martian atmosphere. Pic: NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP
An artist’s illustration of the spacecraft containing the Perseverance rover entering the Martian atmosphere. Pic: NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP

But 3.5 billion years ago there was water flowing across the surface, protected by a thick atmosphere that created a far more benign climate.

And we know from Earth that where there is water, there is life.

But with a surface area of 56 million square miles, and a robotic rover with a limited range, where do you land to find evidence?

NASA has chosen the Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide scar on the surface that was once filled by water.

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A river flowed through its western wall, bringing water from what we can assume was a large catchment.

And if life existed on Mars it would have been concentrated in the sediments in the river delta.

Mark Sephton, an astrobiologist at Imperial College, who is advising NASA on where to send the rover, describes the clay sediment as “like flypaper” for organic molecules and other signs of life.

NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover reached its halfway point - 146.3 million miles (235.4 million kilometers) - on its journey to Jezero Crater on Oct. 27, 2020, at 1:40 p.m. PDT (4:40 EDT). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The rover was launched during a rare window when Earth and Mars were close by
PIA23962: Portrait of Perseverance and Ingenuity (Artist's Concept) In February 2021, NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (shown in an artist's concept) will be the agency's two newest explorers on Mars. Both were named by students as part of an essay contest. Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars. Ingenuity, a technology experiment, will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. Perseverance will
An artist’s impression of the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity rotorcraft on the Martian surface

If the water was a habitat for micro-organisms, the sediment should contain the bio-signature.

Prof Sephton has high hopes for the mission. The area being explored is the right age, with the right conditions and the right chemistry.

But finding evidence that life once existed on another planet would be such massive philosophical re-set for us that it carries a high burden of proof.

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So 500g of rock and dust will be collected in the second half of this decade by another rover and returned to Earth for more comprehensive analysis.

Any life on Mars is most likely to be long gone. But if it has evolved independently at least twice in the solar system, that surely increases the odds of it existing elsewhere in the universe.

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