NASA’s Perseverance rover has made significant discoveries in its first 400 days on Mars, potentially finding a variety of organic molecules that could be the building blocks of life. This achievement is credited to the innovative instrument SHERLOC, which is located on the rover’s robotic arm. The mission’s goal is to find evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars, and while scientists are unsure if the molecules are of biological or geological origin, they are intrigued by the findings.
SHERLOC, short for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, plays a crucial role in determining whether a sample is worth collecting. This makes it an essential component of the Mars Sample Return campaign, a joint effort by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring back scientifically selected samples from Mars for further study on Earth. The instrument’s ability to analyze the chemical makeup of rocks by studying how they scatter light allows scientists to identify different molecules and minerals present in the rocks. This information helps them understand the environment in which the rocks formed.
After capturing images of a rock’s textures with its WATSON camera, SHERLOC adds data to create spatial maps of chemicals on the rock’s surface. The recent results, detailed in a paper published in Nature, have exceeded the expectations of the instrument’s science team.
The Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012, has previously confirmed the presence of organic molecules in Gale Crater. However, Perseverance’s scientists want to preserve rock samples that may contain signs of ancient microbial life for closer study on Earth.
The recent Nature paper focuses on 10 rock targets studied by SHERLOC, including one called “Quartier” that showed signals consistent with organics. When data from SHERLOC and other instruments indicates promising results, the science team decides whether to use the rover’s drill to collect a rock sample. The goal is to collect a diverse set of samples that represent different areas within Jezero Crater, providing valuable context for future scientists studying these samples.
Perseverance’s mission on Mars includes astrobiology, the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will also study the planet’s geology and past climate, paving the way for human exploration of Mars. The ultimate objective is to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith for return to Earth.
The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon to prepare for human exploration of Mars. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages the Perseverance rover for NASA.