As its name suggests, NASA’s next red planet rover — the Mars 2020 — is slated to embark on its journey to our planetary neighbor in 2020.
The Mars 2020 rover is tasked with searching for signs that the red planet may have once been habitable and will spend the duration of its mission seeking evidence of past microbial life.
“The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers,” NASA officials said in a statement.
The robot will take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket — but, while we know where it’s going, the jury is still out on where exactly Mars 2020 will land on the surface of the red planet.
Since many locations on the Martian terrain could have important scientific value for the Mars 2020 mission, choosing the best landing site has proven to be a challenging task.
Therefore, in order to reach a decision, NASA started a series of workshops in 2014 that allowed scientists and engineers to come together and discuss the merits of a number of potential landing spots for the next Mars rover.
The fourth and final one of the Mars 2020 workshops is taking place this week, the space agency announced, and will be held at the Hilton Los Angeles North/Glendale in California starting today.
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) October 15, 2018
During this last round of deliberations — a three-day workshop ending on October 18 — the experts will be evaluating four potential landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover.
Although NASA initially had the list narrowed down to just three candidates — Columbia Hills, Jezero Crater, and Northeast Syrtis — one more entry was thrown into the mix earlier this year. Dubbed “Midway,” this fourth prospective landing spot is located roughly halfway between Jezero Crater and Northeast Syrtis, notes Space.
“Our goal is to get to the right site that provides the maximum science for Mars 2020, and this new site […] was viewed as worthy of being included in the discussions,” said Ken Farley, project scientist of Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Meanwhile, Columbia Hills — which is nestled within the 100-mile-wide Gusev Crater — made it on the list after NASA’s Spirit rover discovered evidence that this location may have hosted mineral hot springs in the planet’s ancient past.
At the same time, Jezero Crater is an ancient river delta where scientists expected that the Mars 2020 rover could find biosignatures of past microbial life. Last but not least, Northeast Syrtis is the site of an ancient volcano that possibly created hot springs and melted surface ice, producing pools of liquid water where microbes could have thrived, the space agency explained on the mission’s website.
Scientists will convene this week to deliberate the future landing site for our next Red Planet rover – Mars 2020. Wanting to hear the broadest range of opinions from the scientific community, we're listening before choosing where to send the new rover: https://t.co/VO7ZUp3x2J pic.twitter.com/eUWRZKGDdu
— NASA (@NASA) October 16, 2018
“The Mars 2020 landing site could set the stage for Mars exploration for the next decade,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
This is because the Mars 2020 rover — whose body is largely based on the six-wheeled Curiosity rover — will be equipped with science gear that will allow the robot to collect rock and soil samples from the red planet and deposit them in a sealed “cache” to be picked up by a potential future mission to Mars.
“I’m looking forward to the spirited debate and critical input from the science and engineering community. Whichever landing site is ultimately chosen, it may hold the very first batch of Mars soil that humans touch,” said Zurbuchen.
After hearing what the experts have to say, NASA will make its final selection and announce the landing site for the Mars 2020 rover by the end of the year.
The next Mars rover will be launched in July 2020 and is expected to touch down on Martian soil in February 2021.