Later this month, NASA expects to land a rover on Mars for a mission that experts say could help us understand how rare life is in the universe.
The site chosen for the mission was selected with help from a researcher at Purdue University.
The Mars rover Perseverance will be looking for signs of ancient microbes buried in Martian rock. Microbes are microscopic organisms that inhabit everything from soil and air to the human body. They are also the earliest known life forms on Earth, with some rock evidence indicating they were here roughly four billion years ago.
Purdue Professor Briony Horgan is an expert in mineralogy and served on NASA’s science team for the mission. She said the site they selected has minerals that indicate the historic presence of water.
“Jezero Crater has these minerals, it’s actually kind of a bathtub-ring around the outside of the crater that contains carbonate minerals,” Horgan said. “Carbonate minerals form all the time on earth when you have carbon dioxide in the atmosphere interacting with water and rock.”
If there was water, Horgan said, that could mean microbes.
“You can kind of picture this beautiful blue lake on Mars with these white sandy beaches,” she said. “The exciting thing is in lakes on earth where we see those same white, sandy, carbonate beaches we see lots and lots of microbes living in microbial mats just along the shoreline.”
Horgan says finding evidence of ancient life on Mars would be the “holy grail” of modern science.
“We still don’t really know how common life is beyond earth,” she said. “NASA is saying in our backyard, in our solar system, were there other planets that developed life, even microbial life? If we can figure that that’ll really help us understand not just microbial life is but even intelligent life is in the universe. It’s a huge step to helping us understand whether or not we’re alone in the universe.”
The high-tech rover Perseverance will survey the Martian landscape for samples that are likely to contain evidence of microbes. Those samples will be picked up on a future mission and brought back to earth for scientists to study.
That return mission isn’t expected to launch until 2028, and samples won’t reach Earth until 2031.