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The long road to returning first-ever samples from Mars - L.A. Focus Newspaper

It's the site of an ancient lake bed and river delta that existed between 3 and 4 billion years ago -- when Mars was warmer, wetter and habitable for potential life.

Perseverance is NASA's first true astrobiology mission and the rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will not only explore Jezero Crater using new scientific instruments, cameras and microphones, but collect the first samples that will ever be returned from Mars to Earth by future planned missions.

The complicated route to the Mars Sample Return mission involves NASA collaborating with the European Space Agency and international partners. And given the difficulty of this multi-pronged return journey of the samples, they won't land on Earth until 2031, at the earliest.

"Perseverance is the first step in the first ever round trip mission to another planet in our solar system," said Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, during a press conference. "Scientists have wanted a sample of Mars to study for generations. Now, we're at a point to begin to attempt this amazing feat."

Roving back in time

Unlike Earth, Mars doesn't have a "young surface" because it's not active in the same way our planet is with moving plate tectonics, volcanic eruptions and other things that tend to erase the history sitting on Earth's surface. So when Perseverance roves across Jezero Crater, it will be able to observe and sample the well-preserved past of Mars.

Scientists estimate that water filled the impact crater to form a lake about 3.8 billion years ago -- right when life was starting on Earth, according to Briony Horgan, member of the Perseverance science team and associate professor of planetary science at Purdue University. The lake was half the size of Lake Ontario (which is 53 miles wide and has an average depth of 283 feet) and almost as deep.

The river delta, which resembles the Mississippi River delta, once fed into the lake and signifies that the lake persisted for a long time. On the other side of the lake bed, a river channel can be seen where water carried away from the crater.

The delta may be the most intriguing area for Perseverance to explore because it preserves the bottom of the lake -- mud, organic materials, signs of ancient life and potentially even fossils of microbes could be preserved in the bottom of the delta, Horgan said.

Based on images provided by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which was launched in 2005, scientists already know there are interesting minerals around the rim of the crater called carbonates. On Earth, carbonates preserve the fossils of ancient life. These carbonates mark what scientists believe was once an ancient shoreline for the lake. When water precipitated here, it could have helped fossilize life or organic molecules signifying it in the form of carbonates.

First, Perseverance will explore the river delta, followed by the crater rim, and eventually, "drive out of the crater and

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