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NASA Mars rover finds organic molecules in Jezero Crater, solves bedrock mystery

But this doesn't mean Perseverance has found signs of ancient life.

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The Perseverance rover snapped a selfie on Mars.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Exciting things are happening in the Jezero Crater on Mars. NASA's Perseverance rover is snapping pictures, gathering samples and teasing out the geologic secrets of its home away from home. This week, NASA highlighted some of the rover's latest discoveries, including the presence of organic molecules.

The rover's Sherloc (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) instrument confirmed the presence of carbon-containing molecules in rocks and dust in the crater. 

The word "organic" might get you excited, since one of Percy's main missions is to seek out signs of ancient microbial life, but that's not quite what this discovery is about. "Confirmation of organics is not a confirmation that life once existed in Jezero and left telltale signs (biosignatures)," NASA said. "There are both biological and non-biological mechanisms that create organics." 

NASA's Curiosity rover, which is keeping busy in the Gale Crater in a different area on Mars, had previously discovered organic compounds. These finds are intriguing, but they don't answer the question of whether Mars once hosted life. 

The organic compounds aren't the only cool rover discovery NASA noted this week. Researchers have figured out what's going on with the bedrock in Jezero, an ancient lakebed. Data shows the bedrock most likely formed from lava flows.

Percy got a good look at a rock nicknamed "Brac" that had telltale crystals formed from cooling magma. "The rock was then altered by water several times, making it a treasure trove that will allow future scientists to date events in Jezero, better understand the period in which water was more common on its surface, and reveal the early history of the planet," Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley said. The rover collected and stashed a sample from Brac. 

NASA hopes to send a future mission to pick up samples collected by Perseverance. It will be a complex task, but studying those rocks in labs on Earth could help answer lingering questions about the habitability of Mars. "The preservation of organics inside ancient rocks -- regardless of origin -- at both Gale and Jezero Craters does mean that potential biosignatures (signs of life, whether past or present) could be preserved, too," NASA said. 

All this new information confirms Percy's mission is forging ahead beautifully. It also shows why the ambitious sample return mission is worth the tremendous effort it will take to pull it off. A little bit of Mars on Earth could reveal all sorts of secrets about Martian geology and history.