Here’s Why Jezero Crater Is Our Best Bet Of Finding Life On Mars

The ancient river delta chosen as the landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover offers the best possible chance of finding signs of past microbial life.

Image of the jezero Crater on Mars, taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
NASA / JPL / JHUAPL / MSSS / Brown University

The ancient river delta chosen as the landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover offers the best possible chance of finding signs of past microbial life.

Last week, the Inquisitr reported that NASA has decided to send its next Mars rover to Jezero Crater — an ancient river delta located just north of the Martian equator. Chosen from an impressive array of 60 initial candidates, this 28-mile-wide crater is “the ideal landing site” for the Mars 2020 rover, according to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In an article published today by Phys.org, the experts explain that Jezero Crater offers unparalleled research opportunities and is, essentially, the best place to go looking for signs of past microbial life on Mars.

Located within Isidis Planitia — a large plain stretching for nearly 750 miles across nestled with a giant impact basin — Jezero Crater boasts a unique geology that dates back to the planet’s ancient past some 3.6 billion to 3.9 billion years ago.

The crater is filled with mineral rocks, such as clays and carbonates, which are exquisitely preserved. These rocks are an excellent medium for fossil preservation and are, in fact, the exact type of sediments that scientists investigate when looking for traces of microbial life on Earth.

For this reason, MIT researchers believe that the ancient clays and carbonates at Jezero Crater are the best study material for determining Mars’ (past or present) habitability.

“Jezero Crater’s geology is very obvious [from orbit], and it is clear that the environment was habitable in the past,” said Tanja Bosak, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).

“It is older than any sedimentary environment preserved in the rock record from Earth. Jezero Crater preserves some of the most ideal rock types that we use to look for past life on Earth.”

Present at the final Mars 2020 landing site workshop — hosted in October to assess the four prime locations for the next Mars touchdown, as previously reported by the Inquisitr — Bosak is convinced that Jezero Crater is instrumental for the success of NASA’s upcoming mission.

Earlier this year, the scientist published a paper together with MIT’s Roger Summons and researchers from international institutions, which provided a field guide of the best sites on Mars that could be fostering microbe fossils. According to their conclusions, mineral-rich environments such as the one present at Jezero Crater were top of the list, as the Inquisitr reported at the time.

Natural color image of the Jezero Crater on Mars.
Natural color image of the Jezero Crater on Mars. Justin Cowart / Flickr/Rezised (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The area is extremely promising in terms of its potential to preserve organic matter and could lead to the discovery of molecular fossils and body fossils of microbes on Mars.

“We know from our efforts to find traces of the earliest life on the Earth that the best chance for finding convincing and credible evidence will come from studies of well-preserved, fine-grained layered rocks that were deposited under bodies of standing water,” explained Summons, who is a member of the team that operates the Sample Analysis on Mars instrument of the Curiosity rover.

Even if the area doesn’t yield concrete evidence of past microbial life on Mars, it could still unveil precious details on the planet’s prebiotic precursors — chemical and environmental conditions necessary for life to appear.

In addition, the landing site of the future Mars 2020 mission could reveal new clues on the red planet’s magnetic field — and possibly help pinpoint the moment when Mars lost the dynamo of metallic fluids deep within its interior, which generated this magnetic field.

Jezero Crater contains rocks and minerals that date back to the time when scientists suspect Mars lost its dynamo and, thereby, its magnetic field. By studying the deposits on this ancient river delta, researchers could determine “if the transition from a warmer, wetter early Mars to the current cold and dry state was caused by the loss of the dynamo field,” said Ben Weiss, a professor of planetary sciences at EAPS, who also attended the Mars 2020 landing site workshop in October.

“Jezero will also be an extremely exciting place to obtain samples for understanding the history of the ancient Martian magnetic field.”