Remember When Life was Found in a Martian Meteorite? Turns out, it was Just Geology

The Alan Hills meteorite is a part of history to Mars aficionados. It came from Mars and meteorite hunters discovered in Antarctica in 1984. Scientists think it’s one of the oldest chunks of rock to come from Mars and make it to Earth.

The meteorite made headlines in 1996 when a team of researchers said they found evidence of life in it.

Did they?

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Is That a Fossil on Mars? Non-Biological Deposits can Mimic Organic Structures

There’s nothing easy about searching for evidence of life on Mars. Not only do we somehow have to land a rover there, which is extraordinarily difficult. But the rover needs the right instruments, and it has to search in the right location. Right now, the Perseverance lander has checked those boxes as it pursues its mission in Jezero Crater.

But there’s another problem: there are structures that look like fossils but aren’t. Many natural chemical processes produce structures that mimic biological ones. How can we tell them apart? How can we prepare for these false positives?

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Perseverance has Collected its First Sample of Mars and Prepared it for Return to Earth… Eventually

It’s another first for NASA.

In early September, the Perseverance rover successfully used its robotic arm and drill to drill into a rock and extract a sample. It extracted a rock core about 6 cm (2 in) long and placed it inside a sealed tube. This is the first time a robotic spacecraft has collected a sample from another planet destined for a return to Earth on a separate spacecraft.

Now we wait for the eventual return of the sample to Earth.

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ExoMars Will be Drilling 1.7 Meters to Pull its Samples From Below the Surface of Mars

In about a year (Sept. 20th, 2022), the Rosalind Franklin rover will depart for Mars. As the latest mission in the ESA’s and Roscosmos’ ExoMars program, Rosalind Franklin will join the small army of orbiters, landers, and rovers that are working to characterize the Martian atmosphere and environment. A key aspect of the rover’s mission will involve drilling into the Martian soil and rock and obtaining samples from deep beneath the surface.

To prepare for drilling operations on Mars, the ESA, Italian space agency (ASI), and their commercial partners have been conducting tests with a replica – aka. the Ground Test Model (GTM). Recently, the test model completed its first round of sample collection, known as the Mars Terrain Simulation (MTS). The rover drilled into hard stone and extracted samples from 1.7 meters (5.5 feet) beneath the surface in a record-breaking feat.

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Zhurong is Rolling on Mars

China's Zhurong rover on Mars

On May 22nd, 2021, the Zhurong rover – part of Tianwen-1, China’s first mission to Mars – descended from its lander and drove on the Martian surface for the first time. According to the mission’s official social media account, the rover drove down its descent ramp from the Tianwen-1 lander at 10:40 a.m. Beijing time (07:40 p.m. PDT; 10:40 p.m. EDT) and placed its wheels upon the surface of Mars.

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The Same Technology Could Search for Microbes in Mars Rocks or Under the ice on Europa

Ever since it landed in the Jezero Crater on Feb. 18th, 2021, the Perseverance rover has been prepping its scientific instruments to begin searching for signs of past life on the Red Planet. These include spectrometers that will scan Martian rocks for organics and minerals that form in the presence of water and a caching system that will store samples of Martian soil and rock for retrieval by a future mission.

These telltale indicators could be signs of past life, which would most likely take the form of fossilized microbes. In the near future, a similar instrument could be used to search for present-day extraterrestrial life. It’s known as the Wireline Analysis Tool for the Subsurface Observation of Northern ice sheets (WATSON), and could be used to find evidence of life inside “ocean worlds” like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan.

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Perseverance has Started Driving on Mars

On February 18th, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars. Over the next two years of its primary mission, this robotic mission will carry on in the search for past life on Mars, obtaining soil and rock drill samples that will be returned to Earth someday for analysis. And as of March 4th, the rover conducted its first drive, covering 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) across the Martian landscape.

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New Perspective of Jezero Crater Shows the Path Perseverance Could use to Navigate

On February 18th, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover set down on the surface of Mars. During the next two years of its primary mission, the rover will search the Jezero crater (where it landed) for evidence of past life on Mars. This will consist of collecting soil and rock samples from the preserved delta feature that formed billions of years ago from sediments deposited by flowing water.

The question is, where should it look for this possible evidence? A possible route the rover will take during its primary mission is shown in a series of recent images provided by NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS). As illustrated in the image below, this path would take it from the cliffs that form the edge of the delta, up and across its surface towards possible “shoreline” deposits, and up to the rim of the crater.

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What Happens if Perseverance Finds Life on Mars?

It all happened so fast! On Thursday, February 18th, NASA’s Perseverance rover set landed in the Jezero crater on Mars and almost immediately transmitted its first image of the Martian. This was followed by photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and footage taken by the rover’s Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL). Then there was the panoramic video, a sound recording, and deployed its Ingenuity helicopter, all in the space of a week!

But that’s nothing compared to what happened next. Shortly after the rover started drilling into the floor of the Jezero crater, Perseverance found evidence of fossilized bacteria! The search for life on Mars finally struck paydirt! Okay, that didn’t happen… Not yet, anyway. But what if it does? After all, one of Perseverance‘s main objectives is to search for evidence of past life on Mars. What will be the impact if and when it finds it?

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Plans for a Mars Sample Return Mission Have Moved to the Next Stage

This past summer, NASA’s Perseverance rover launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. On February 18th, 2021, it will arrive on Mars and join in the search for evidence for past (and maybe even present) life. A particularly exciting aspect of this mission is the Mars Sample Return (MSR), a multi-mission effort that will send samples of Mars back to Earth for analysis.

This aspect of the Perseverance mission will be assisted by a lander and orbiter developed by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). According to NASA, the MSR recently advanced to the next stage of development (Phase A). If all goes well, Perseverance will have a companion in the coming years that will take its samples and launch them to orbit, where they will be picked up and sent back to Earth.

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