Engineer tests Mars rover 2020.
One sunny day next summer, in front of a crowd at the Kennedy Space Center, a rocket carrying the next, best hope of finding Mars life, will launch in the sky.
Seven months later, the Mars 2020 Rover will touch the Jezero Crater, a dry lake in the northern hemisphere of Mars. With its six wheels and a range of high-tech tools, it will shake the surrounding rocks for evidence that alien germs once lived on the Red Planet.
Decades of exploring Mars with orbital probes, landscapes and rovers have revealed once the planet has raised a dense atmosphere and water on its surface. Researchers have even found traces of complex organic molecules ̵
Two new studies offer the striking suggestion that Mars 2020 may find even stronger evidence of Martian life – if it existed at all.
The rocks around Lake have evidence of carbonate and hydrated silica – molecules that are known on Earth to help preserve microscopic fossils for billions of years.
"It's a big, bright road sign that says 'look here, look here,'" said Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University and lead author of a study in the Icarus Magazine reporting the discovery of carbonates. "The Jeser Crater is an incredibly mineralogically diverse place, with many paths ahead to search for biosignatures, which means we have a great chance of understanding exactly what happened to life here."
But what about Mars 2020
Both studies published this week rely on the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer (CRISM), an orbital camera capable of scanning the Martian surface in infrared and visible light. From a height of 250 miles, CRISM produces colorful maps of minerals on the Red Planet.
Carbonates, which are formed by the interaction of carbon dioxide with rock and water, have been found everywhere in the Jezero Crater. But CRISM showed a particularly high mineral concentration along the inner edge of the crater, exactly where the lake's shoreline would have been more than 3 billion years ago.
For Horgan, this means that they could be left behind by waves jumping at the rock. It compares sediment with the dirt line that forms when water meets the sides of the bath (scientists have even called the region "the bath ring").
"What makes this so exciting is [carbonate] that captures something that precipitates around," Horgan said. "It mimics the structures of germs so you get preserved textures … but it also captures the organic material there. "
If the microbes lived on Lake Jezero, there is a decent chance that the carbonates would have taken over them.
Some of the oldest fossils on Earth were rooted in carbonate. Scientists have discovered stromatolites – layered structures formed by carbonate-coated bacterial mats – dating back 3.7 billion years.
Jess Tarnas, a planetary scientist at Brown University, also relies on CRISM maps for his research, and his paper, published in the Geophysical Research Letters, describes hydrated silica near the Gazero Delta, where water from a long-lost river flowing into an ancient lake
Hydrated silica, commonly known as opal, may form during volcanic eruptions and at the ends of hot springs. But when created from sediments that precipitate on the sea floor, it can form strong, solid crystals that are extremely effective at preserving the signs of life. On Earth, scientists have discovered samples of hydrated silica containing ancient organic material and even petrified cells.
Because Martian hydrated silica is so close to the delta that it may contain material from the river system. And if the rivers of Mars have ever borne life, the remains of ancient organisms can still be captured in these crystals.
Hydrated silica "is not something that has been found before," said Katie Stuck Morgan, Katie Stuck Morgan's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a deputy scientist on the 2020 Mission Project. Morgan, who did not participate in Tarnas's research, said the mineral would likely be a major target for the rover once it lands.
"It is really exciting to think that there are fields in Jezero that we have on Earth," she said. "We will consider ways to approach them as much as we can.
The 2020 Rover will be armed with a wide range of instruments for exploring these minerals. Cameras can capture images of stromatolites, if any. Lasers and molecular "snipers" known as spectrometers will outline the composition of the rocks at an elementary level.
"We will be able to do astrobiological studies that we want to do on Mars for a decade
The Curiosity Rover, which has been circling around Galle Crater since 2012, can only measure molecules "in bulk," Morgan said. Although he has discovered organic molecules, he cannot identify them to
"With 2020, we can go there and we can say that we see an element or mineral concentration associated with that very specific fine texture," Stack said. "These very subtle textural differences are what people look for and have sharpened their eyes when making a case for biosignatures."
But even in the dream scenario of scientists, one in which Mars had life and its remains have been preserved and the 2020 Rover is able to find fossils – it is unlikely that this mission alone will prove whether the Martians ever existed.
The discovery of life beyond Earth is such an unusual claim, as Carl Sagan would say, that it requires extraordinary evidence – evidence that only man can provide.
"What we're really trying to do with this rover is look for 'potential biosignatures,'" Horgan said. But only if "we confirm it here with all our amazing laboratory equipment," she continued, "can we turn a 'potential biosignature' into a 'biosignature'.
Mission 2020 is only the first step in the proposed four-part program. After identifying the most fascinating rocks around the Jeterro Crater, the rover will use a specially designed workout to collect and cache material samples.
Someday (if everything goes according to plan), scientists will launch subsequent extraction missions. try it and bring it home. Finally, in an ultra-secure facility that has not yet been built, they will analyze the rocks on a natural scale to determine definitively whether they contain evidence of life.
The whole process will take years, if not decades, It can never happen. The necessary follow-up missions have not yet been approved, let alone funded and developed. And the trips to Mars are notoriously difficult: about 50 percent of all attempts to reach the Red Planet have failed.
"There is this overwhelming evidence that maybe [life] there was, but you won't know until you get the samples back," Tarnas said. "And you really just have to have the patience and courage to stick to it."
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