NASA has announced the landing site for its next Mars rover, a thrilling mission to an ancient lakebed to look for signs of past microbial life.
The location is called Jezero Crater, which fended off competition from more than 60 other possible landing locations in a process lasting about five years. It is a large crater 45 kilometers (28 miles) across, found slightly north of the Martian equator near a region called Isidis Planitia.
This will be where NASA’s Mars 2020 rover touches down in early 2021. The region is thought to have been home to an ancient river delta billions of years ago, and if that water once played host to life, this region may contain signs of that life once existing.
“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,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.
Mars 2020 is almost identical in appearance to the Curiosity rover, which is already on Mars, but it will have a number of different instruments. These will include a sample caching system, which will be used to collect samples and leave them on the surface of Mars in vials for a future mission to pick up and return to Earth, perhaps in the late 2020s.
Selecting the landing site now allows the team to begin preparations to explore this exciting region. The Mars 2020 rover will touch down in the same way Curiosity did, with a “sky crane” system lowering the machine onto the surface.
There’s also an exciting possibility with this mission, too. As reported last month, scientists had considered sending the rover on a daring mission to two locations, rather than one. And if the mission gets extended, that might still be possible.
About 28 kilometers (17 miles) from Jezero Crater is a region called Midway, a region shaped by volcanic activity that may also contain ancient springs. While NASA will focus on Jezero for the rover’s primary mission, it might very well visit this location at a later date.
That’s not to say Jezero Crater will be easy. The region is strewn with rocks and craters, which will make a landing especially difficult. But if the landing can be pulled off, the scientific return could be huge.
“The Mars community has long coveted the scientific value of sites such as Jezero Crater,” Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in the statement. “But what was once out of reach is now conceivable.”