Mars’ Jezero Crater Was Once a Massive Lake That May Contain Fossils

Mars’ Jezero Crater Was Once a Massive Lake That May Contain Fossils
A Mars Perseverance image showing one of Mars' river delta outcrops. NASA/JPL-Caltech
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According to an MIT statement, a new analysis of images taken by NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover confirms the rover’s landing site, the Jezero crater, was a large lake fed by a small river some 3.7 billion years ago.

The new analysis supports the theory that led NASA to select the Jezero crater as the landing site for the Mars Perseverance mission. The US space agency believes that sediment discovered in the crater’s ancient lakebed could reveal evidence of ancient life on Mars.

Their investigation was based on images of the crater’s western side, which has now been confirmed to be an ancient river delta that fed into a once-Earth-like lake on Mars’ Jezero crater.

In Search of Fossils on Mars

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Science, also revealed that flash floods occurred in the now-deserted region. “If you look at these images, you’re basically staring at this epic desert landscape,” explained Benjamin Weiss, an MIT professor of planetary sciences and a member of the analysis team. “There’s not a drop of water anywhere, and yet, here we have evidence of a very different past. Something very profound happened in the planet’s history.”

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After seeing satellite images of fan-shaped rock formations resembling river deltas on Earth, the Mars Perseverance team chose the Jezero crater as their landing site. The new images were captured during the first three months of the rover’s arrival on Mars in February, when it remained stationary while NASA engineers performed remote analysis of the machine’s instruments. The images, captured by Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z and SuperCam Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) cameras, confirm that a river delta once existed on the western side of the Jezero crater.

The Mars Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter on the surface of the red planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

According to the new MIT study, the lake was calm for long periods of time until a change in climate caused flash flooding in the area. The floods, according to the researchers, carried large boulders tens of miles from higher altitudes down to the lake bed, where they are still present today. Perseverance will then search for locations to collect samples that will be returned to Earth by future missions. These samples will be analyzed for signs of ancient Martian life once they arrive on Earth. “We now have the opportunity to look for fossils,” Tanja Bosak, associate professor of geobiology at MIT, said of the team. “It will take some time to get to the rocks where we hope to find signs of life. As a result, it’s a marathon with a lot of potential.”

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Mars’ Transition into a Red Desert Wasteland

The flood-swept boulders on the ancient Jezero crater lakebed are impressive, and they may allow scientists to pinpoint exactly when Mars transitioned from a habitable planet to the red desert planet we know today. “The most surprising thing that’s come out of these images is the potential opportunity to catch the time when this crater transitioned from an Earth-like habitable environment, to this desolate landscape wasteland we see now,” Weiss said. “These boulder beds may be records of this transition, and we haven’t seen this in other places on Mars.”

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Since landing on the Jezero crater on February 18, the Mars Perseverance mission has accomplished a number of historic firsts, including the first controlled flight on another planet and the first extraction of breathable oxygen from Mars using an experimental instrument known as MOXIE.

The Perseverance rover will explore and sample the Jezero crater for at least two years. It will deposit samples on Mars in specific locations for future Mars missions to retrieve and return to Earth. We could be on the verge of confirming the existence of alien life in the form of long-dead microorganisms, which would fundamentally alter our understanding and perception of the universe.

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