Life on Mars breakthrough? NASA’s 2020 rover will dig for alien fossils and ‘ancient life’

NASA’s as-of-yet unnamed rover will dig through the Red Planet’s Jezero Crater for alien microbial fossils dating billions of years back. The Jezero Crater is the sight of an ancient water lake believed to have been active at least 3.5 billion years ago. With a bit of luck, Mars 2020’s dig site will uncover evidence of stromatolites – shoreline rocks formed by microbial organisms.

In a November 11 paper published in the journal Icarus, scientists identified mineral deposits known as carbonates along the crater’s rim.

Here on Earth, carbonates help “preserve biosignatures” such as seashells and corals for many billions of years.

The study said: “Jezero crater may contain a unique record of the evolution of surface environments, climates, and habitability on early Mars.”

Jezero crater measures approximately 28 miles (45km) across and forms part of an ancient river delta.

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Evidence of the delta’s arms was found running along the crater’s floor using orbital observations.

Tools such as the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars instrument, or CRISM, helped astronomers select Jezero as the landing spot for Mars 2020.

The study’s lead author Briony Horgan of Purdue University in West Lafayette believes Jezero’s “bathtub ring” is one of the most exciting regions to explore.

She said: “CRISM spotted carbonates here years ago, but we only recently noticed how concentrated they are right where a lakeshore would be.

“We’re going to encounter carbonate deposits in many locations throughout the mission, but the bathtub ring will be one of the most exciting places to visit.”

The development of carbonates in the Jezero lake is also exciting for another reason.

We’re eager to get to the surface

Ken Williford, NASA Mars 2020

The mineral can help scientists better understand how Mars transformed from a lush and humid planet into the barren landscape it is today.

Scientists believe the Red Plane once closely resembled a young Earth, which opens up the possibility of simple life forms developing billions of years ago.

Carbonates form through the interaction of carbon and water and preserve “subtle changes” in the environment over time.

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NASA has dubbed these minerals a “time capsule” of sorts that allow scientists to study the geological history of Mars.

NASA’s Mars 2020 will intently study this part of Mars by drilling out rock cores and storing them in secure containers.

According to the space agency, the primary goal is to “search for actual signs of past microbial life”.

The rover will leave the collected core samples at predetermined locations for future missions to pick up and return to Earth.

NASA is yet to work out the specifics of the sample returns but scientists are working around the clock to figure out the best solution to the problem.

One proposal is to send a separate rover and launch platform to Mars by 20206.

The robotic duo will collect the rock core samples and fly them back to Earth to be studied.

Mars 2020 Deputy Project Scientist Ken Williford said: “The possibility that the ‘marginal carbonates’ formed in the lake environment was one of the most exciting features that led us to our Jezero landing site.

“Carbonate chemistry on an ancient lakeshore is a fantastic recipe for preserving records of ancient life and climate.

“We’re eager to get to the surface and discover how these carbonates formed.”

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