Search for life on Mars continues on anniversary of rover mission

UC geosciences students, professor help uncover natural history of red planet

In the three years since NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars, the NASA science team has made the daily task of investigating the red planet seem almost mundane.

The rover and its helicopter sidekick Ingenuity have captured stunning images of Mars and collected 23 unique rock core samples along 17 miles of an ancient river delta.

One science team member, University of Cincinnati Associate Professor Andy Czaja, said he sometimes has to remind himself that the project is anything but ordinary.

“This is so cool. I’m exploring another planet,” he said.

UC geology professor Andy Czaja and student Andrea Corpolongo, posing at the Cincinnati Observatory, are part of NASA's Perseverance science team looking for evidence of ancient life on Mars.

UC graduate student Andrea Corpolongo, left, and UC Associate Professor Andy Czaja pose with a telescope at the Cincinnati Observatory. They serve on the NASA science team that is using the Perseverance rover to explore Mars. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand

Czaja teaches in the Department of Geosciences in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences. He is a paleobiologist and astrobiologist helping NASA look for evidence of ancient life on Mars using a rover outfitted with custom geoscience and imaging tools with three of his UC graduate students, Andrea Corpolongo, Brianna Orrill and Sam Hall.

Three years into the mission, the rover has performed like a champ, he said.

“Perseverance has excelled. It’s been fantastic. It has such capable instrumentation for doing the geology work. It’s able to explore distant objects with its zoom lens cameras and can focus on tiny objects at incredible resolution,” Czaja said.

Along the way, the mission has recorded a number of firsts: first powered flight, first recorded sounds of Mars, the longest autonomous drive (nearly a half-mile) and new discoveries about the planet’s geology, atmosphere and climate.

I hope that Perseverance has just whetted our appetite for more Martian exploration.

Andy Czaja, UC College of Arts and Sciences

Czaja was part of the NASA team that decided where on Mars to land the rover. And he remained on the science team that would pore over its daily data and discoveries to decide what the rover should do next.

Among the new discoveries was finding primary igneous rocks in Jezero Crater. These rocks are the hardened result of liquid magma. They offer scientists promising clues about refining the known age of the planet. Researchers used the rover’s sophisticated tools to identify the chemical composition of the minerals.

Scientists suspect Mars once had long-lived rivers, lakes and streams. Today, water on Mars is found in ice at the poles and below the Martian surface.

A panorama of the rocky surface of Mars at Jezero Crater.

The rover Perseverance has taken hundreds of thousands of images of Mars in the past three years. Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Czaja and his student Corpolongo were co-lead authors of a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Planets that revealed that Mars also may have had hydrothermal systems based on the hydrated magnesium sulfate the rover identified in the volcanic rocks.

“When those rocks cool off and fracture, they become a habitable environment for life,” Czaja said.

Corpolongo also led a similar research paper in the same journal co-authored by Czaja detailing the results of the rover’s analysis of samples using the SHERLOC deep ultraviolet Raman and fluorescence instrument. Both papers featured contributions from dozens of their fellow NASA researchers on the project.

Samples collected by the rover may finally answer the question about whether we are alone in the universe.

“We have not found any definitive evidence of life in these deposits yet. But if there were fossil microorganisms trapped in the rocks, they would be too small to see with the rover,” Czaja said.

Perseverance captures an image of a dusty helicopter Ingenuity on the rocky surface of Mars..

The helicopter Ingenuity made 72 flights before being grounded by damaged rotors. Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Czaja is hopeful funding will be approved for the anticipated Mars Sample Return mission to retrieve the hermetically sealed titanium tubes scientists have spent three years filling with interesting rock cores.

“These hydrated minerals trap water within themselves and record the history of how and when they formed,” the study said. “Returning samples of these minerals to Earth would allow researchers to explore the history of Mars’ water and climate and possibly evidence of ancient life with the most sensitive instruments possible.”

But that was just the beginning. Perseverance began its deliberate exploration from the floor of the crater to the front of the delta, formed by an ancient river or drainage channel where it encountered sedimentary rocks that often contain trapped minerals and another avenue for evidence of ancient life.

And last year the rover made it to the crater’s margin in what used to be an enormous lake where it is exploring deposits of magnesium carbonate, which can form geologically or biologically from bacteria.

Czaja said the decision to send Perseverance to Jezero Crater appears to be paying off.

“Absolutely. There were other places we could have gone that might have been just as good,” he said. “You won’t know until you explore them all. But Jezero was picked for good reason and it has been completely justified.”

The helicopter Ingenuity’s flying days appear to be over after it sustained rotor damage in January after landing on its 72nd flight. But Perseverance is still going strong. It still has 15 sample tubes at its disposal to capture additional interesting geologic specimens.

Next the rover will make its way out of Jezero Crater to explore the wider area. Czaja said they are likely to find rocks dating back 4 billion years or more. And Mars could harbor stromatolites or rocks that contain evidence of ancient layered mats of bacteria visible to the naked eye. On Earth, these rocks are sometimes found in extreme environments such as geyser basins.

The horizon of discovery continues to expand daily before the science team.

“I hope that Perseverance has just whetted our appetite for more Martian exploration,” Czaja said. “And bringing back samples will allow us to study Mars and search for evidence of ancient life with instruments that haven’t even been invented yet for years and years to come.”

Featured image at top: The rover Perseverance takes a selfie on the rocky surface of Mars. Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Andrew “Andy” Czaja, Geology Assistant Professor shown here in his office, lab and outside GEO-PHYS building Monday July 27, 2020. UC/ Joseph Fuqua II

UC Associate Professor Andy Czaja helped NASA decide where on Mars to land the Perseverance rover and has spent the last three years exploring the planet's Jezero Crater as a member of the NASA science team. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC

An aerial photo of a dry river delta identifies the crater floor, the delta and landmarks such as the rover location, Three Forks, Hogwallow Flats, Hawksbill Gap and Enchanted Lake.

NASA's Perseverance rover has been investigating rocks at the front of what scientists believe is a former river or floodwater delta in Mars' Jezero Crater. Illustration/NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/USGS

A close look at a rover's extended robotic arm with a background of Martian rocks and sand.

The rover puts its robotic arm to work around a rocky outcrop. Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

A closeup of a hole in a boulder cut by the rover surrounded by the pebbly sand of Mars.

Perseverance takes a rock core sample at a site called Berea on the 749th Martian day of the mission. Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech

A stitched panorama of Mars shows the hilly, sandy terrain covered in rocks.

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover stitches together a panorama of Mars using its mast-mounted camera. Photo/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The rover captures its own shadow across a striated boulder sticking up from the sand.

The rover captures an image of a geological feature called Betty's Rock on the 474th Martian day of the mission. Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech

A slightly elevated view looking back across the top of the rover as it sits parked on the sandy surface of Mars.

NASA "parks" Perseverance to wait out the Mars solar conjunction, a period when Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun. The sun's ionized gas can interfere with communications, so NASA idled the rover until Earth and Mars were back in direct view. Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech

A painting of what the Perseverance rover's descent to the surface of Mars likely looked like.

A system of rocket engines allows Perseverance to slow to just 2 mph in a powered descent before a sky crane deploys the rover onto the surface of Mars in February of 2021. Illustration/NASA/JPL-Caltech

An illustration shows how a rocket-mounted system lowers the rover on cables to the surface of the planet.

Near the surface, a sky crane system lowers the rover 21 feet gently to the ground. Illustration/NASA/JPL-Caltech

A metal pan sits on the ground under the chassis of the Perseverance rover.

A camera on Perseverance shows the ejected debris shield that protected the rover's sidekick helicopter called Ingenuity during landing. The helicopter is folded up under the rover. Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

A wide shot of the sandy, hilly landscape of Mars with the tracks of the rover in the sand in the foreground and a bleached-out sky.

Martian landscape. Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

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