Where should NASA land the Mars 2020 rover? That was a question scientists tackled during a third landing site workshop for the mission last week. The list of potential landing sites narrowed to three. Let’s take a look.
Columbia Hills is nestled within the 100-mile wide Gusev Crater. Here, NASA’s Spirit rover discovered evidence that mineral springs once bubbled from its rocks. This is the only spot already partially explored by a rover. And studies of the rover’s data shows evidence that ancient floods may have created a shallow lake within Gusev crater.
Columbia Hills is an exciting location. Evidence points to water being present in this area. But, it would mean revisiting an old location instead of discovering a new piece of the red planet.
Another hint at the potential of a wet past on Mars lies inside Jezero Crater.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image showing sediments containing clays and carbonates. Scientists believe more than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels topped the crater wall and created a lake. At least twice water filled and drained away from the crater.
What were the conditions like during the wet times? We know where there’s water there’s life. Microbial life could have called Jezero crater home during the times it was wet. If that’s true, signs of this life could be found in the sediments. Lots of coulds and ifs, but we won’t know until we go there. It could be nothing or everything.
NE Syrtis is another intriguing location where volcanic activity once warmed the surrounding area. According to NASA, this heating resulted in hot springs flow and surface ice melt. Again, microbial life could have lived here where water made contact with minerals. A close examination of the sediment here will tell scientists a lot about Mars’ early history.
Each site follows certain criteria set by the mission planners. The two big ones are does each site achieve every scientific objective put forth for the mission and does the area show signs that the right environmental conditions were in place to support microbial life?
Plus, each site needs a ‘go’ from a safety standpoint. Other locations might be more ideal for evidence of microbial life, but the rover wouldn’t be able to move around safely. Getting to Mars isn’t cheap or easy. NASA has to balance the science with a relatively safe location. Each of these spots checks every box.
The Mars 2020 mission is still deep in the pre-launch phase. Scientists still need to narrow down the landing site to one. The spacecraft needs to be built and tested. If everything continues to go smoothly, launch is expected in July or August 2020. Then, it’s an 8-9 month cruise through deep space to reach the Red Planet. Sometime between January and March 2021, the rover will touch down and begin its surface mission that is expected to last at least one Mars year (687 Earth days).