NASA’s mission to Mars launches next year, and it could be our best opportunity yet to discover signs of extraterrestrial life. A pair of new studies have unearthed evidence that Jezero crater—home to a fossilized delta formed by a river that flowed 3.6 billion years ago, and the landing site of the Mars 2020 rover—is home to materials often associated with preserving evidence of ancient life.
Those new findings bolster hopes the 28-mile-wide crater will give us proof that life once existed on Mars, back when it was warm and teeming with liquid water on the surface.
The first study, published November 6 in Geophysical Review Letters, shows the presence of hydrated silica, a mineral that’s exceptionally good at preserving organics and biosignatures in microfossils (those smaller than a millimeter) for several billion years. Any such fossils in Jezero would probably be a few billion years old, says Jesse Tarnas, a planetary scientist at Brown University and the lead author of the new study. “Having a sample of silica that could have formed in a habitable environment increases our chances of finding well-preserved microfossils if life did exist on the surface of Mars,” he says.