SHERLOC Investigates Red Planet Puzzler at Wildcat Ridge

(Credit: NASA)

Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… as Perseverance, the flagship of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, continues its investigations at Jezero Crater, potentially promising discoveries have been made in an ancient delta that may help unravel a Martian mystery. Specifically, we’ll be looking at 1) the latest developments in Perseverance’s Red Planet pursuits, 2) what the collection of rock samples at Jezero Crater is revealing about conditions on ancient Mars, and 3) whether recent discoveries with the help of the rover’s SHERLOC instrument at the enigmatic Wildcat Ridge could point to evidence of life.

Quote of the Week

“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” 

– Sherlock Holmes

Before we dive into things, a few of the stories we’ve been covering recently at The Debrief include how researchers say their newly developed “Biofinder” tool could help astrobiologists in the search for extraterrestrial life. Also, the creation of a new metasurface material could improve efforts to harness quantum entanglement in producing innovative new technologies. And as the 21st-century space race ensues, Chinese space architects are looking at using a lava tube on the Moon as the location of its future lunar base.

Also, Chrissy Newton recently caught up with astronomer Konstantin Batygin for a discussion about the ongoing search for life elsewhere in the cosmos. You can catch that discussion and the latest video reporting, podcasts, and other content from our team over on The Debrief’s YouTube channel. And as always, a complete listing of all our latest breaking science and defense stories can be found at the bottom of this week’s newsletter.

With that, it’s now time to head to the Red Planet, where recent discoveries by the Perseverance rover could yield promising new clues in the search for life on Mars.

Perseverance: Mars’ Resident Rockhound Rolls On

A Martian mystery billions of years in the making has been detected at Jezero Crater… and as Perseverance takes up the case, the latest offerings from NASA’s ambitious Mars mission show that the game is clearly afoot.

Roughly the size of an automobile, Perseverance, the main fixture of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, was a product of the minds at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Launched on July 30, 2020, “Percy” touched down on the Red Planet on February 18, 2021, and has remained active within the Jezero Crater ever since.

The Perseverance rover explores the Jezero crater on Mars (Credit: NASA).

To date, Percy has now successfully collected a dozen samples of rock core samples, which will be used to help determine if signs of life—either past, or present—exist on Earth’s planetary neighbor. Four samples have been collected since early July from an ancient river delta within the crater.

Stories in Stone

Thomas Zurbuchen, the NASA associate administrator for science, says that Jezero Crater provided “the best chance of providing scientifically excellent samples,” and early results from Percy’s collection efforts appear to be conveying that it was precisely where NASA needed to focus its efforts.

“These first two science campaigns have yielded an amazing diversity of samples,” Zurbuchen said, “to bring back to Earth by the Mars Sample Return campaign.” It was recently announced that Zurbuchen, who has led NASA’s Science Mission Directorate for more than six years, will be stepping down from his position later this year.

NASA Deputy Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen (Credit: NASA).

As Perseverance continues its mission, having already explored the base of the crater and various geological formations within it, the rover is presently studying sedimentary rocks deposited by ancient water movement within the delta where its current operations are based.

Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley, contrasting the igneous rocks from Percy’s earlier studies with the sedimentary samples it is currently collecting, says that the comparison “provides us with a rich understanding of the geologic history after the crater formed and a diverse sample suite. For example, we found a sandstone that carries grains and rock fragments created far from Jezero Crater – and a mudstone that includes intriguing organic compounds.”

New Clues Are Unearthed at Wildcat Ridge 

Somewhere over the course of the last several billions of years, a one-meter-wide rock settled into the surrounding sand and mud within Jezero Crater, as the last of the saltwater forming an ancient lake finally evaporated. The rock, dubbed “Wildcat Ridge” by the Perseverance team, is now the focus of the rover’s geological studies, where it is utilizing one of its most interesting science instruments in the study of this ancient Martian feature.

The Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, otherwise known as SHERLOC, has already yielded results that bear promise in terms of expanding NASA’s understanding of the ancient dynamics that once might have hosted life within the crater.

Close up of the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument (Credit: NASA/JPL).

Based on SHERLOC’s most recent investigations, a particular variety of organic molecules have been detected which, according to NASA, appear to be correlated spatially with sulfate minerals present in samples collected by Percy. Why is this significant? The significance here has to do with the fact that sulfate minerals—minerals containing sulfate ions within their structure—which occur in layers of sedimentary rock like those presently being collected by Percy act almost like miniature time capsules that store key information about the conditions within the ancient watery environment where they formed.

Fundamentally, when the presence of organic molecules is detected, it often indicates compounds associated with the building blocks for life. In other words, although we are still far from proving the existence of life on Mars at any time, the presence of such organic molecules do represent a potential biosignature that may point to the presence of life having been there at one time.

In years past, Percy’s predecessor, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, also located evidence of organic matter in powdery geological samples it recovered. This, in addition to previous discoveries involving organic molecules elsewhere within Jezero Crater by Perseverance. However, unlike such past detections, SHERLOC’s analysis has produced the most abundant evidence of organics anywhere on Mars to date.

“The fact the organic matter was found in such a sedimentary rock – known for preserving fossils of ancient life here on Earth – is important,” Ken Farley said in a NASA statement, though cautioning that additional studies will be required to determine what, precisely, the samples collected at Wildcat Ridge may contain.

In the years ahead, the recent clues uncovered with the help of SHERLOC during Percy’s recent excursions could indeed provide promising results, once the samples finally make their way back to Earth as part of the Mars Sample Return mission.

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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