This mess of boulders was deposited by an ancient river on Mars

Since the Viking 1 AND 2 missions visited Mars in 1976, scientists were faced with mounting evidence that Mars once had water flowing across its surface. The images collected by the twin Viking the landers and orbiters showed clear signs of ancient flow channels, alluvial deposits and weathered rocks. Thanks to the dozens of other dispatched orbiters, landers, and rovers that have been sent there since, scientists have gotten a clearer picture of what Mars once looked like. By the end of this journey, they hope to find evidence (if any) that Mars once supported life and still does today.

The latest evidence of Mars’ hotter watery past comes to us courtesy of NASA Perseverance rover, which continues to explore Jezero crater and obtain samples for the first sample return mission to Mars. On Friday, June 23, the rover obtained its 20th sample, which was drilled from a rocky outcrop known as “Emerald Lake.” Called “Otis Peak,” this sample is part of an outcrop formed by mineral deposits carried by an ancient river and may contain valuable geological information about the many places these minerals come from.

Shortly after collecting the main sample, Perseverance snapped an image with its Sampling and Cache System Camera (CacheCam) on its underbelly. As you can see from the image (below), the core has distinctly colored areas corresponding to individual minerals that have been transported by the river that once flowed into the Jezero crater. Every pebble and fragment in this core sample (dubbed “Otis Peak”) contains data about the age of the conglomerate, the environmental conditions in the river at the time of formation, and whether the river was home to ancient microbial life (fingers crossed!).

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Perseverance image of the “Otis Peak” core sample drilled from a conglomerate rock called Emerald Lake. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Like Ken Farley, a Perseverance project scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, explained in a recent NASA press release:

Pebbles and boulders found in a river are messengers from afar. And while the water that created the Martian riverbed that Perseverance is currently exploring evaporated billions of years ago, the history those waters carried remains fresh, stored in conglomerate rock.

The Otis Peak core was obtained as part of PerseveranceThe third science campaign of , which consists of exploring the upper part of the fan-shaped delta on the western rim of the crater. This pile of sedimentary rock is 40 meters (130 feet) high and is one of the clearest indications that Mars has had flowing water in the past. With the latter simple safely cached by him, Perseverance is now on his way to a low ridge further west called “Snowdrift Peak”. Like “Emerald Lake,” this region is covered in boulders believed to have been transported to their current location billions of years ago.

Boulders are a good opportunity to obtain samples due to their large surface area, allowing scientists to visually examine many rocks in a single image. This allows them to select samples containing a wide range of minerals, ensuring that the samples provide geological data on many different areas. The team plans to monitor the boulder-strewn terrain that the rover navigates on its way to “Snowdrift Peak” so they can stop and collect samples from any rocks that look particularly promising. Farley said:

Whether or not the boulders look intriguing enough for closer inspection and possible sampling remains to be seen. We are taking a page from the past. Gold or diamond prospectors in the old days often looked into rivers to determine if there was any deposit of interest upriver. No need to hike up there to see the river do the job!

THE Perseverance the sample cache will be returned to Earth in the coming years by the Mars Sample Return campaign, a joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). This campaign will see NASA Sample retrieval landers, sample retrieval helicopters, AND Mars ascent vehicle collect and send the samples into orbit. Meanwhile, ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will rendezvous with the ascent vehicle in orbit, take the samples on board and take them home for analysis. This campaign aims to analyze Martian soil and rock samples using laboratory equipment too heavy and complex to be sent to Mars aboard a robotic explorer.

This is part of a much larger field of study known as astrobiology, the search for evidence of life beyond Earth. This search has been happening on Mars using robotic orbiters, landers and rovers for nearly fifty years, since the days of Viking 1 AND 2 missions. Over the past twenty years, this goal has been taken up by thirteen missions by five different space agencies, such as NASA Spirit, OpportunityCuriosity, AND Perseverance rovers, ESAs Tracer gas orbiter (TGO), of China Tianwen-1 landers and Zhurong rovers, of India Mangalyan orbiter and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Emirati mission to Mars.

These robotic explorers will help pave the way for manned exploration missions, which NASA and China hope to send early next decade.

Further reading: NASA

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