After years of consideration, NASA has finally chosen the all-important landing site for its Mars 2020 rover.
The location is known as Jezero Crater, and on several occasions in the dim and distant past water is believed to have flowed into it before draining away. As a result, scientists believe that “microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of these wet times,” offering the tantalizing prospect of some fascinating finds among Jezero’s lakebed sediments after the rover arrives on Mars in July 2020.
“The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years … that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a post on the space agency’s website. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”
As the name of NASA’s rover suggests, Mars 2020 will begin its voyage to the red planet in two years’ time. Assuming it lands safely at the 28-mile-wide Jezero Crater, it will spend much of its time carrying out geological assessments around its landing site, and also examine the habitability of Mars’ harsh environment — just in case we ever get there ourselves.
The Mars 2020 mission may even lead to the first-ever return of rock samples from the red planet, with the rover collecting and storing rock samples for a later mission to come and collect — a challenging feat that NASA scientists are currently working out how to pull off. Until then, plenty of other data can be transmitted to Earth for scientific analysis.
NASA looked at around 30 possible sites for the rover landing before settling with Jezero Crater. In choosing the location, scientists wanted to be sure that the rover would be able to move around unhindered by the rough terrain, and that the site would enable the team to meet all of the mission’s objectives.
“The Mars community has long coveted the scientific value of sites such as Jezero Crater, and a previous mission contemplated going there, but the challenges with safely landing were considered prohibitive,” said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But what was once out of reach is now conceivable, thanks to the 2020 engineering team and advances in Mars entry, descent, and landing technologies.”
If all goes to plan, the Mars 2020 rover will be the first one to land on the planet since Curiosity in 2012. Curiosity has managed to overcome occasional issues to continue its work there, exploring the surface of the red planet and sending back data for analysis. Earlier this year, Curiosity discovered methane and other organic compounds that serve as the foundations of life, marking the first time for scientists to gather reliable evidence of the existence of organic compounds on Mars.
In more Mars-related news, NASA is just days away from another major event — the arrival of its InSight robotic lander. Assuming the landing goes to plan on Monday, November 26, InSight will become “the first outer space robotic explorer to study in-depth the ‘inner space’ of Mars” that includes its crust, mantle, and core.
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