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Mars : Searching for signs of past life on the red planet

Rovers sent to Mars – like Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity – are designed to be the eyes and hands of scientists. Using their miniaturized tools and instruments, they analyze hundreds of rock and soil samples right on the spot and send data back to Earth.

NASA's Mars  rover, Perseverance, will use a drill to collect samples in precise locations selected by terrestrial experts. For the first time on the red planet, these small quantities of rock will be sealed and stored for possible return to Earth.

Perseverance is operating in Jezero Crater, a location just north of Mars's equator, which is home to several different types of rock that will help scientists meet their mission objectives. As part of future missions, the samples collected by Perseverance could later be retrieved and brought to Earth for analysis with the full range of instruments available to scientists. The Mars  mission will address fundamental questions about the potential for life on Mars.

According to current plans, the Mars Sample Return campaign would involve several steps:

  1. Selection and collection: The Perseverance rover team selects the samples, and the rover collects them. The samples are either left at a specific location or carried onboard.
  2. Transfer and retrieval: Perseverance is the primary means of transporting samples to the Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL). The SRL also includes two sample recovery helicopters, which may retrieve additional samples collected by Perseverance.
  3. Ascent: The SRL includes the Mars Ascent Vehicle and the Sample Transfer Arm to take the sealed tubes containing samples of Martian rocks and soils into Mars orbit.
  4. Rendezvous in Martian orbit: The Earth Return Orbiter waits in orbit around Mars to meet with the Mars Ascent Vehicle to capture the sample container using the Capture, Containment and Return System to prepare for return to Earth.
  5. Sample return: The pristine samples could arrive on Earth as early as .
Artist's concept of NASA's Mars 2020 rover

An artist's concept of the Mars  rover on the rugged surface of the red planet. Perseverance is searching for evidence of a vastly different environment, including traces of ancient waterways. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)


The objectives of the Mars  mission are to:

Scientists also learn about Mars through Martian meteorites, pieces of the red planet that have travelled here after being knocked off in cosmic collisions.

But surviving the journey through Earth's atmosphere means that these fragments are made of strong material which does not fully represent all types of rock on Mars. In fact, scientists believe evidence of past life could be locked inside rocks on Mars that are different in makeup from the meteorites that have landed here on Earth.

By using the Mars  rover to analyze the rocks, scientists are paving the way for a new understanding of our planetary neighbour.

Perseverance can see delta remnants at Mars's Jezero Crater

In this view taken by its Mastcam-Z instrument, the Perseverance rover can see a remnant of a fan-shaped deposit of sediments known as a delta. Scientists believe this delta – the raised area of dark brown rock – is what remains of the confluence between an ancient river and a lake at Mars's Jezero Crater. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

Canada's role in the mission

Chris Herd

Dr. Chris Herd, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alberta. (Credit: Faculty of Science, University of Alberta)

Mariek Schmidt

Dr. Mariek Schmidt, associate professor of Earth sciences at Brock University. (Credit: Brian Scott)

Richard Léveillé

Dr. Richard Léveillé, adjunct professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at McGill University. (Credit: R. Léveillé)

Ed Cloutis

Dr. Ed Cloutis, professor of geography and Director of the Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration at the University of Winnipeg. (Credit: University of Winnipeg)

Kim Tait

Dr. Kim Tait, Teck Endowed Chair of Mineralogy at the Royal Ontario Museum and Professor at the University of Toronto. (Credit: Saty + Pratha)

The Canadian Space Agency is funding Canadian institutions to support five scientists' participation in the Mars  mission:

Igneous rocks are one of three main types of rocks (along with sedimentary and metamorphic). They form when magma (molten rock) cools and crystallizes. They can have many different compositions, depending on what kind of magma they come from, and can vary in appearance based on their cooling conditions.

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