Final NASA workshop considers Mars 2020 landing sites

An artist’s impression of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. The agency is holding a fourth and final workshop to debate four possible landing sites. A decision on where the rover will land is expected by the end of the year. Image: NASA

A fourth and final NASA workshop this week will discuss and debate the relative merits of four proposed landing sites for the space agency’s Mars 2020 rover. A final decision on where the nuclear-powered robot will land is expected by the end of the year.

“The Mars 2020 landing site could set the stage for Mars exploration for the next decade,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NAA’s director of space science. “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.”

The Mars 2020 mission is designed to look for signs of habitability in the distant past as well as search for evidence of possible microbial life. The rover, similar in design to NASA’s Curiosity lander, carries a sampling system that will collect rock and soil, placing the material in a cache that potentially could be retrieved and returned to Earth by a future lander.

The workshop in Los Angeles follows three earlier sessions that narrowed down landing sites from around 30 to just three: Columbia Hills, Jezero Crater and Northeast Syrtis.

“At the end of the workshop in February of 2017, there were only three sites on our radar as potential Mars 2020 landing locations,” said Ken Farley, project scientist of Mars 2020 at JPL. “But in the ensuing months, a proposal came forward for a landing site that is in between Jezero and Northeast Syrtis. Our goal is to get to the right site that provides the maximum science for Mars 2020, and this new site – dubbed ‘Midway’ – was viewed as worthy of being included in the discussions.”

The results of the latest round of deliberations will be forwarded to NASA Headquarters in Washington for a final decision by the end of the year. The 2020 rover will be launched in July 2020 atop an Atlas 5 rocket. Touchdown on Mars is expected in February 2021.