Mars 2020: NASA Picks Landing Spot For The Next Mars Rover

The Mars 2020 rover is going to an ancient river delta known as Jezero Crater.

Image of Jezero Crater taken by two instruments on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
NASA / JPL / JHUAPL / MSSS / Brown University

The Mars 2020 rover is going to an ancient river delta known as Jezero Crater.

Five years after the Mars 2020 project was first announced, we finally have a landing spot for the next Mars rover. Following a long process of scrutiny and selection, NASA has chosen Jezero Crater as the touchdown area for the Mars 2020 rover.

Unveiled yesterday as the final destination of the next robotic mission to Mars, Jezero Crater was picked out of more than 60 candidate locations — all with great scientific potential for the Mars 2020 mission. Once an ancient river delta, the 28-mile-wide crater is rife with geologic diversity and is currently seen as the best hope of finding signs of past life on the red planet.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, Jezero Crater was already viewed as a prime location for biosignatures of past microbial life on Mars. The area boasts at least five different types of rock that could be sampled by the Mars 2020 rover — which will hopefully provide unparalleled insight into the habitability of the red planet.

“The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”

One of the main reasons why the Mars 2020 rover is going to Jezero Crater are the ancient sedimentary rocks deposited on the now dried-up lakebed. Exquisitely preserved thanks to Mars’ lack of plate tectonics, the ancient river delta is filled with clays and carbonates — known for their “high potential” to retain traces of microbial life.

As NASA points out, the lake-delta system at Jezero Crater “could have collected and preserved ancient organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater billions of years ago.” The rover will collect several soil and rock samples and store them in a cache on the Martian surface for later pick-up by a future Mars mission.

Image of a rover on the Martian terrain.
  NASA

Another plus for the Mars 2020 mission is that Jezero Crater is located in one of the “oldest and most scientifically interesting landscapes Mars has to offer” — Isidis Planitia, a massive plain just north of the Martian equator.

This giant impact basin was originally targeted as a landing spot for the European Beagle 2 mission, sent out to drill the area and search for signs of alien life back in 2003. However, the tiny British probe never made it to Isidis Planitia and was lost somewhere on the Martian surface, as the Inquisitr reported a few years ago.

While landing on Isidis Planitia is definitely a hard job to pull off, the Mars 2020 rover is poised to have a more auspicious fate. The car-sized robot will descend on the western edge of the plain — where Jezero Crater is located — and will rely on a novel feature called Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) to guide itself to safe ground, NASA explained.

Similar to the Curiosity rover, which served as an inspiration for the design of the new NASA robot, the Mars 2020 rover will use a rocket-powered sky crane to lower itself on the Martian terrain. The spacecraft is in for a challenging landing and will be facing numerous potentially hazardous landforms, including cliffs, boulders, and depressions filled with aeolian bedforms —wind-derived ripples in the sand that could trap a rover.

The TRN feature is meant to give the robot an extra advantage and will provide it with a map of the landing site, known hazards included, allowing the rover to change its direction and divert itself from risky terrain.

“Nothing has been more difficult in robotic planetary exploration than landing on Mars,” said Zurbuchen. “The Mars 2020 engineering team has done a tremendous amount of work to prepare us for this decision. The team will continue their work to truly understand the TRN system and the risks involved, and we will review the findings independently to reassure we have maximized our chances for success.”

Due to launch in July 2020, the Mars 2020 rover will touch down in Jezero Crater in February 2021. The robot is equipped with seven scientific instruments and will trek the inside of Jezero Crater for at least one Mars year, or about 687 Earth days.