Can microscopic fossils be found on Mars by 2020 mission?

Pablo Tucker
November 17, 2019

Curiosity had previously found signs of microbial life on Mars formed billions of years ago, results which the Mars 2020 rover aims to build on with a new set of equipment to search for signs of actual life on Mars. The carbonates comprise structures that could live through a fossil form for billions of years.

The research is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

The possibility of stromatolite-like structures on Mars is the reason why the concentration of carbonates that trace the coast of Jezero as a bathtub ring makes the area an excellent scientific hunting ground.

The fact that oxygen levels varied wildly as they do is important because it suggests as-of-yet undiscovered processes at work on the surface of the planet.

The Curiosity rover has now had a greatly successful mission on Mars, but it's not done building discoveries nonetheless. The presence of silica could be a huge coup for finding any fossilized evidence of life, said Jack Mustard, one of the study's co-authors.

Carbonates are also expected to give more insight into the manner in which Mars changed from being a watery planet with a thick atmosphere to becoming a freezing desert. The minerals could have formed upstream in the watershed that fed Jezero and been washed subsequently into the crater, by volcanic activity or later episodes of water saturation in the Jezero crater lake.

Now, like the question of methane continued to swirl, scientists are studying the behavior of the gas on Mars have noticed that the oxygen in the Red Planet also act much different than it does on Earth. The "arms" of this delta is clear in images taken by satellite missions like NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter from space.

The researchers used data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) instrument on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and found two spots in the Jezero Crater that contain silica deposits.

The Mars 2020 rover will be launched in July or August 2020 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It's possible that the minerals formed in place and represent the bottom layer of the delta deposit, which is a great scenario for preserving signs of life.

"CRISM spotted carbonates here years ago, but we only recently noticed how concentrated they are right where a lakeshore would be", study lead author Briony Horgan, an assistant professor of planetary science at Purdue University in IN, said in a different statement. Concentrated in a "bathtub ring" around Jezero, these newly discovered carbonates may have been deposited by an ancient lake-and could be home to the preserved remains of microbial Martian life.

Through their mission, the team is hoping that they can explore the floor of the crater as well as the delta, when the rover takes off. Horgan adds that the team is hoping that it would come to the rim of the crater as well as its carbonates. "Carbonate chemistry on an old lake shore it's a fantastic recipe to preserve the records of ancient life and climate." said Mars 2020 project associate scientist Ken Williford of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"We can get incredible high-resolution images and compositional data from orbit, but there's a limit on what we can discern in terms of how these minerals formed", Tarnas said.

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