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  11 Sep 2021, 12:25

Mars rocks collected by Perseverance boost case for ancient life

  WASHINGTON, Sept 11, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - NASA's Perseverance Mars rover has

now collected two rock samples, with signs that they were in contact with
water for a long period of time boosting the case for ancient life on the Red
Planet.

  "It looks like our first rocks reveal a potentially habitable sustained
environment," said Ken Farley, project scientist for the mission, in a
statement Friday. "It's a big deal that the water was there for a long time."

  The six-wheeled robot collected its first sample, dubbed "Montdenier" on
September 6, and its second, "Montagnac" from the same rock on September 8.

  Both samples, slightly wider than a pencil in diameter and about six
centimeters long, are now stored in sealed tubes in the rover's interior.

  A first attempt at collecting a sample in early August failed after the
rock proved too crumbly to withstand Perseverance's drill.

  The rover has been operating in a region known as the Jezero Crater, just
north of the equator and home to a lake 3.5 billion years ago, when
conditions on Mars were much warmer and wetter than today.

  The rock that provided the first samples was found to be basaltic in
composition and likely the product of lava flows.

  Volcanic rocks contain crystalline minerals that are helpful in radiometric
dating.

  This in turn could help scientists build up a picture of the area's
geological history, such as when the crater formed, when the lake appeared
and disappeared, and how climate changed over time.

  "An interesting thing about these rocks as well is that they show signs for
sustained interaction with groundwater," NASA geologist Katie Stack Morgan
told a press conference.

  The scientists already knew the crater was home to a lake, but couldn't
rule out the possibility that it had been a "flash in the pan" with
floodwaters filling up the crater for as little as 50 years.

  Now they are more certain groundwater was present for much longer.

  "If these rocks experienced water for long periods of time, there may be
habitable niches within these rocks that could have supported ancient
microbial life," added Stack Morgan.

  The salt minerals in the rock cores may have trapped tiny bubbles of
ancient Martian water.

  "Salts are great minerals for preserving signs of ancient life here on
Earth, and we expect the same may be true for rocks on Mars," added Stack
Morgan.

  NASA is hoping to return the samples to Earth for in depth lab analysis in
a joint mission with the European Space Agency sometime in the 2030s.

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