NASA's Next Mars Rover May Embark On A Daring "Mega-Mission"

Artist's impression of the Mars 2020 rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists have voted on which one of four possible locations NASA’s next Mars rover should go to. And the result? Let’s go to almost all of them.

Well, sort of. But the outcome of a meeting of Mars scientists in Glendale, California last week proposes a rather exciting idea for the Mars 2020 rover. Rather than limiting itself to one site, it should attempt to visit two.

“The community prefers a mega-mission,” said Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, reported Nature.

The Mars 2020 rover, aside from studying the surface, will collect samples and store them in caches on the surface of Mars. A future robotic mission, perhaps in the late 2020s, will pick them up and return them to Earth.

This meeting was the fourth and final workshop that would discuss where the rover should land. Four landing sites were considered, whittled down from an original list of 30, each with its own scientific benefit.

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One is Jezero Crater, a dry ancient lake found in the northern hemisphere of Mars. Another is Northeast Syrtis, a region shaped by volcanic activity that may contain ancient springs. A third was a return to Columbia Hills, where NASA’s Spirit rover landed in 2004, known to have ancient habitable conditions and providing an opportunity to image the now-defunct rover.

This latter idea was not favored at the meeting – most would rather go to a new location and maximize the science available. Which is why a fourth landing site was added to the list of candidates in July this year, called Midway.

Located between Jezero Crater and Northeast Syrtis, it would provide an opportunity to visit both sites. At the workshop, it was suggested the rover could travel from Jezero Crater to Midway, providing a glimpse of a vast swathe of Martian history.

“I'd much rather be ambitious and go for a 'mega-mission' than overly cautious and send a flagship mission somewhere we've already been,” Ryan Anderson, a planetary scientist from the USGS Astrogeology Science Center, wrote on Twitter.

The results of the vote showed that Jezero Crater and Midway were the preferred destinations. And it could be possible to visit both, as they are separated by just 28 kilometers (17 miles).

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The Mars 2020 rover is almost identical in design to the Curiosity rover that’s currently on Mars. Curiosity, however, has traveled just 19 kilometers (12 miles) since 2012. The Mars 2020 rover has a primary mission lasting 15 kilometers (9.3 miles), although that could be extended.

Visiting two sites would be risky, but the scientific return could be pretty huge. NASA will decide on the landing site by the end of the year – and whether to play it safe, or go all out for the mega-mission.

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