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The work of Martian rovers is not easy. “We cannot compare a miniaturized laboratory with analytical resources on Earth”

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The technology of the rovers currently operating on Mars may be too weak to detect biological material. However, this does not mean that sending them to the Red Planet is pointless.

Scientific instruments currently deployed on Mars may not be sensitive enough to biological material to identify possible signs of life in this environment, scientists report in the scientific journal Nature Communications. But that doesn’t mean scientists are disappointed. – Let’s wait for the samples to be brought from Mars to Earth – told PAP Ewa Borowska, an astrobiologist from the University of Warsaw.

Atacama research

Scientists are gathering more and more information about the conditions on Mars thanks to successive space missions. There is no doubt that the scientific instruments currently deployed on Mars are very technologically advanced, but they will not match the large laboratories built on Earth, if only because the equipment penetrating the Red Planet must be small.

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An international team of experts has studied sedimentary rocks from the Atacama Desert in Chile. These deposits were formed in very dry conditions around 160-100 million years ago and are geologically similar to the Jezero crater on Mars, which is currently being explored by the Perseverance rover. The researchers assessed that rovers present on Mars may not be sensitive enough to identify possible signs of life.

– If it wasn’t for space missions – we wouldn’t even know what kind of rocks there are on Mars. For this reason alone, rovers will never be a disappointment. Thanks to the information about what type of rocks we are dealing with, scientists were able to conduct research in the Atacama – a desert that serves as the so-called earthly analogy – the geochemical and geophysical conditions there are similar to those that occur or have occurred on Mars – said Borowska, which as part of her doctoral thesis deals with the study of extremophilic microorganisms (resistant to the factors of extreme environments).

– I can strongly emphasize that just because we are currently unable to detect high levels of organic compounds in situ does not mean that they are not there, or that we will not be able to detect them on the next mission. We cannot compare the miniaturized labs on the rover with the analytical resources on Earth. So before we assess the correctness and sensitivity of the instruments on the rovers – let’s wait for the samples that will be delivered to us by the next Martian mission. Then we will be able to draw more conclusions from the results we have thanks to previous missions and the current one – said Borowska.

Curiosity Analytics

She also cited the example of difficulties in assessing the material collected by the Curiosity rover.

– The Curiosity rover has detected remnants of thiophenes (aromatic organic compounds) on our planet, dating back about 3.5 billion years. Despite accurate analytical equipment, we are still unable to confirm all analyzes 100 percent – noted Borowska.

In November 2022, scientists reported that data collected by the Perserverance rover helped determine that the Jezero crater studied on Mars was once a lake and contained organic matter. At the same time, they noted that the presence of organic matter does not immediately mean the presence of life, but indicates a higher probability of its existence on Mars in the past.

In January 2023, the Curiosity rover detected water-rich opal in Gale Crater on Mars. However, it is not a mineral – which means that the water trapped in it can be relatively easily extracted, for example by heating.

“It’s amazing to see how Curiosity’s neutron detector, the rover’s only subsurface sensor, originally designed to run for several years, continues to deliver fantastic results that reveal information about water and hydrated materials hidden just below the surface of Mars,” said co-author Prof. . Craig Hardgrov.

Selfie of the Curiosity rover on MarsNASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Perseverance has finished taking samples

In February 2023, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that the space rover Perseverance has finished collecting samples on Mars. Ten titanium tubes containing pollen and rock samples were left at various locations on the Martian surface. It is assumed that these samples will be taken from Mars – and delivered to Earth – by subsequent NASA missions in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA). They are to reach Earth in 2031.

Perseverance is a Mars rover sent by NASA that landed on the surface of the Red Planet in February 2021. A key goal of the Perseverance mission is astrobiology research, including the preservation of samples that may contain traces of past microbial life. The rover studies the geology of the planet and its climate, which will pave the way for the next stages of exploration of the Red Planet in the future. This is the first mission to collect and store Martian rocks and regolith.

In addition to searching for signs of life on Mars, the Perseverance mission is expected to help develop technology for a manned flight to Mars. Scientists want to find out, among other things, whether it is possible to obtain and store oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

Perseverance roverNASA/JPL-Caltech

Main photo source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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