After five years of analyses and debate, NASA says the Mars 2020 rover will land in Jezero Crater near an ancient river delta that may hold evidence of past microbial life. The rover also will test technologies to extract oxygen from the martian atmosphere and cache rocks and soil samples for possible return to Earth aboard a future robotic spacecraft.
The nuclear-powered rover is targeted for launch in July 2020. If all goes well, the spacecraft will land in Jezero Crater on 18 February 2021.
“The landing site at Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years and could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, director of space science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
“Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life,” he added. “This decision today could determine what happens in the next decade or more of Mars exploration, both robotic and human. The technologies that we prove here feed forward into a program that gets ever more exciting.”
Planetary scientists began discussing possible landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover five years ago, ultimately settling on four candidates out of a list of more than 60. After a final review, Zurbuchen selected Jezero, a 45-kilometre-wide (28-mile-wide) crater some 500 metres (1,600 feet) deep.
Scientists believe the crater was filled with a deep lake between 3.5 billion and 3.9 billion years ago, fed by a river that flowed into and then out of the crater. A distinct delta fans out where the river channel cuts through the rim of the crater.
“Lakes on Earth are both very habitable and inevitably inhabited, so that’s the first attraction,” said Ken Farley, Mars 2020 project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The second attraction is a delta is extremely good at preserving biosignatures, any evidence of life that might have existed in the lake water or at the interface between the sediment and the lake water.”