Mars Rock Samples: The Stories They Could Tell

September 19, 2023
CreditNASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/MSFC/JSC/MAVEN/Lunar and Planetary Institute Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS; Mastcam-Z images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS
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What secrets could we unravel by studying Mars samples in state-of-the-art labs on Earth? Scientists around the globe are eager to find out.

As of late-fall 2023, NASA's Perseverance Mars rover has collected 21 scientifically selected samples of Martian rock, which scientists believe may hold extraordinary evidence to help answer centuries-old questions like - “Did life ever exist on Mars?” and “How did the Red Planet evolve over time?”

The Perseverance rover has collected a diverse set of samples, including:

  • Sedimentary rocks, which are good at preserving ancient life
  • Igneous rocks, which can tell us about the early evolution of Mars
  • Regolith, which can provide insight into the global and local landscape of Mars

Through a series of future missions called Mars Sample Return, these samples could be brought to Earth for in-depth study and could help astrobiologists in their search for signs of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.

Considered one of the highest priorities by the scientists in the Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032, Mars Sample Return would be the first mission to return samples from another planet and provides the best opportunity to reveal the early evolution of Mars, including the potential for ancient life. NASA is teaming with ESA (European Space Agency) on this important endeavor.

Read about all the carefully selected samples:

Learn more about the Mars Sample Return campaign:



Mini Wadhwa: The big question that we have for Mars is did life ever exist on that planet?


These samples are going to give us that extraordinary evidence.




Sunanda Sharma: The Perseverance rover is right now studying different rocks that are on Mars and collecting samples of those rocks and dust to cache those in a sample collection and hopefully have those picked up to bring them back to Earth in the future for further study in all the best labs that we have.

Mini Wadhwa: It's quite likely that in some of these potentially habitable environments that we've characterized very well on Mars, there might have been life that existed some time in the very ancient past. That's the kind of environment that's being explored by Perseverance right now in Jezero Crater.

Sunanda Sharma: Jezero Crater is really interesting for this mission because we think it's an ancient lake and there's this delta that leads into the lake. And that's perfect because if you think of rivers that are on Earth, that's where all of these signs of life get sedimented and stored for really long periods of time. And we're looking for life that we think existed billions of years ago.

Mini Wadhwa: And we have, in fact, got already a treasure trove of materials of samples that are better than we even imagined we would have at this point. We have a diversity of rock types, including sedimentary rocks, meaning that they were laid down by water and are fantastic at preserving evidence of ancient life. We've also found and collected igneous rocks which are actually molten magma that solidified and can tell us something about the early planetary evolution of Mars.

We will be able to learn something about planet formation, planet evolution processes from studying these ancient rocks on Mars that really then we can extrapolate to conditions on the Earth. On planet Earth there really isn't that preserved rock record. But on Mars, we actually can see that ancient history of that early planetary evolution. How did planets form and evolve in the inner solar system? We will be able to get that from studying ancient Mars rocks.

Sunanda Sharma: What we can do with this mission is go broad, across the crater floor, delta front, upper fan and beyond, and then go deep by hopefully getting those samples back and doing every type of analysis you can do. And for astrobiologists, that's the dream. You get the breath, you get the depth, and you get all the context.

Mini Wadhwa:This is going to be a transformative moment for the science community as a whole, because it's going to offer us the opportunity to study these samples for decades to come, to train generations of scientists.

When we look out into space, the big question as humans is, you know, are we alone in this universe? Have we always been alone in this universe? And these rocks will have really incredible stories to tell about the history of Mars and the possibility of ancient life on Mars.


For more information on Mars Rock Samples: