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NASA Mars Rover Inspects ‘Tantalizing’ Rock for Clues to Ancient Life

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is determined to tease out Mars’ secrets, especially when it comes to seeking evidence of ancient microbial life. The wheeled explorer is investigating a spot called Yori Pass in a long-gone river delta region of the Jezero Crater. The crater is believed to have been flooded with water early in Mars history and the delta may have once carried the molecules required for life. The rover found some rocks there that have excited scientists back on Earth.

Percy will aim to collect a rock sample at Yori Pass. “The feature is so tantalizing to the scientists because it is sandstone, which is composed of fine grains that have been carried from elsewhere by water before settling and forming stone,” NASA said in a statement on Thursday. The crater’s history of water is a big reason NASA chose it as a place to look for signs of past life.

The rover used an abrasion tool to clean off a bit of the rock and look beneath the dusty surface. It uncovered veins of lighter material within the beige surroundings. “Could it hold clues about ancient life?” the Perseverance team tweeted

NASA hopes Perseverance will uncover biogsignatures — which the agency defines as “any characteristic, element, molecule, substance, or feature that can serve as evidence for ancient life” — in the Yori Pass rock. The rover had previously found organic molecules in an earlier rock sample, but it’s too soon to say if it’s evidence of microbial life from the planet’s past.

Scientists will need to get their hands on the rocks from Jezero Crater to truly understand what’s going on with them. That’s where NASA’s ambitious Mars Sample Return mission comes in. The space agency is planning to fetch Percy’s samples and bring them back to Earth for study. A sample of the sandstone from Yori Pass would be a much-sought-after prize. 

Once Percy is done at its current location, it will roll away to check out a large sand ripple where NASA plans to snag a sample of Martian regolith (crushed up rock and dust). It’s just another day at the office for the rover, except its office is on another world.

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