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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.

A Mars Sample Return campaign would involve three phases:

  1. Sample selection and collection: the rover would select the samples, collect them and leave them at a specific location.
  2. Sample retrieval and transfer: another rover would go to the selected location to pick up the samples and bring them back to a rocket, or ascent vehicle.
  3. Sample return: the rocket would send the samples into orbit around Mars to be captured by another spacecraft for return to Earth.
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)

Objectives

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 collect and store unchanged samples from specific areas on Mars's surface for possible return to Earth, 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)

The Canadian Space Agency is funding four 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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