Martian meteorite discovered from Oman in 1999 will return to Red Planet aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover

The sample, referred to as Sayh al Uhamiyr 008 or SaU 008, was fell on Earth from Mars about 600-700k years ago

                            Martian meteorite discovered from Oman in 1999 will return to Red Planet aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover

NASA’s next mission to the Red Planet — the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission — is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday, July 30. When the Perseverance rover lifts off, if things go according to schedule, a piece of a Martian meteorite will be going back to its home planet.  

The meteorite that fell on Earth from Mars and was discovered from Oman in 1999. The sample, referred to as Sayh al Uhamiyr 008 or SaU 008, has been under the care of the Natural History Museum since 2000. “Every year, we provide hundreds of meteorite specimens to scientists all over the world to study. But this is a first for us: sending one of our samples approximately 100 million km away back home, to further our knowledge of Mars,” says Professor Caroline Smith, head of Earth Sciences Collections at the Museum, principal curator of meteorites, and a member of the Mars 2020 science team.

Scientists think that the Martian meteorite may have been created when an asteroid or comet plunged into the planet about 600,000 to 700,000 years ago. “As an innovative global science leader, we’re thrilled that the Museum is able to open up its world-class collection — in this instance a meteorite that was blasted off Mars between 600 and 700 thousand years ago — and become an integral part of the Mars 2020 mission, a monumental journey of space exploration, pushing the boundaries of science in a truly international endeavor,” says Professor Smith.

A fragment of the Martian meteorite SaU-008 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The SaU008 sample will be one of the first Martian meteorites to ever return to the planet's surface. Once Perseverance has landed at Mars’ Jezero Crater in February 2021, the meteorite will be used as a testing material by the spectrometer instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) to ensure accuracy and precision before the instrument goes on to investigate unknown samples. “When you start work for the day, you need to measure materials you know very well and that you know the composition of. This allows you to be confident that the instrument is working properly before you start working with new samples,” says Professor Smith.

The sample was selected as one of the calibration materials after a robust selection process. “The piece that we are sending was specifically chosen because it is the right material in terms of chemistry, but also it is a very tough rock. Some of the Martian meteorites we have are very fragile. This meteorite is as tough as old boots. In addition, studying this sample over the course of the mission will help us to understand the chemical interactions between the Martian surface and its atmosphere,” explains Professor Smith. Overall, SHERLOC's calibration target includes 10 objects. SuperCam, another instrument aboard Perseverance, also has a piece of Martian meteorite on its calibration target, which will serve the same purpose to SuperCam as SaU 008 does to SHERLOC.

A member of the Mars 2020 Science Team looks at the calibration target that will be sent on the Mars Rover, Perseverance, including SaU 008 (NASA)

With a chassis of about 10 feet (3 meters) long, Perseverance is also the largest, heaviest robotic Mars rover NASA has built. It is expected to search for signs of ancient microbial life, characterize the planet’s geology and climate, collect carefully selected and documented rock and sediment samples for a possible return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration beyond the Moon. To achieve this, Perseverance will use a combined high-precision laser, camera and SHERLOC to illuminate rock features as fine as a human hair and decipher the composition of the sample.

“The verification of ancient life on Mars carries an enormous burden of proof. Perseverance is the first rover to bring a sample caching system to Mars that will package promising samples for return to Earth by a future mission. Rather than pulverizing rock the way Curiosity’s drill does, Perseverance’s drill will cut intact rock cores that are about the size of a piece of chalk and will place them in sample tubes that it will store until the rover reaches an appropriate drop-off location,” explains NASA. A Mars sample return campaign is being planned by NASA and the European Space Agency because here on Earth, scientists can investigate the samples with instruments too large and complex to send to Mars. Examining those samples on Earth will provide far more information about them than even the most sophisticated rover could provide, say experts.

Jezero Crater on Mars is a 28-mile-wide (45-kilometer-wide) crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. According to NASA, the crater was a possible oasis in its distant past. “Between 3 billion and 4 billion years ago, a river there flowed into a body of water the size of Lake Tahoe, depositing sediments packed with carbonite minerals and clay. The Perseverance science team believes this ancient river delta could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life,” says NASA.

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