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Scientists Shortlist Three Landing Sites for Mars 2020

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Sun Feb 12, 2017 12:53 pm via: NASA
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Participants in a landing site workshop for NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission have recommended three locations on the Red Planet for further evaluation. The three potential landing sites for NASA’s next Mars rover include Northeast Syrtis (a very ancient portion of Mars’ surface), Jezero crater, (once home to an ancient Martian lake), and Columbia Hills (potentially home to an ancient hot spring, explored by NASA’s Spirit rover).

Mars 2020 is targeted for launch in July 2020 aboard an Atlas V 541 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The rover will conduct geological assessments of its landing site on Mars, determine the habitability of the environment, search for signs of ancient Martian life, and assess natural resources and hazards for future human explorers. It will also prepare a collection of samples for possible return to Earth by a future mission.

This approximate true-color image taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows a rock outcrop dubbed 'Longhorn,' and behind it, the sweeping plains of Gusev Crater.

This approximate true-color image taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit shows a rock outcrop dubbed 'Longhorn,' and behind it, the sweeping plains of Gusev Crater.

Mineral springs once burbled up from the rocks of Columbia Hills. The discovery that hot springs flowed here was a major achievement of the Mars Exploration Rover, Spirit. The rover’s discovery was an especially welcome surprise because Spirit had not found signs of water anywhere else in the100-mile (160-kilometer)-wide Gusev Crater. After the rover stopped working in 2010, studies of its older data records showed evidence that past floods that may have formed a shallow lake in Gusev.

It's not only when trying to find a scientifically interesting place to land that the high-resolution images from HiRISE come in handy: it's also to identify potential hazards within a landing ellipse.

It's not only when trying to find a scientifically interesting place to land that the high-resolution images from HiRISE come in handy: it's also to identify potential hazards within a landing ellipse.

Jezero Crater tells a story of the on-again, off-again nature of the wet past of Mars. Water filled and drained away from the crater on at least two occasions. More than 3.5 billion years ago, river channels spilled over the crater wall and created a lake. Scientists see evidence that water carried clay minerals from the surrounding area into the crater after the lake dried up. Conceivably, microbial life could have lived in Jezero during one or more of these wet times. If so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed sediments.

This image lies in the middle of a candidate landing site in the Northeast part of Syrtis Major, a huge shield volcano, and near the Northwest rim of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin.

This image lies in the middle of a candidate landing site in the Northeast part of Syrtis Major, a huge shield volcano, and near the Northwest rim of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin.

Volcanic activity once warmed NE Syrtis. Underground heat sources made hot springs flow and surface ice melt. Microbes could have flourished here in liquid water that was in contact with minerals. The layered terrain of NE Syrtis holds a rich record of the interactions that occurred between water and minerals over successive periods of early Mars history.

Key Questions for Deciding on the Mars 2020 Rover’s landing Site

Potential landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover could change as mission science and engineering considerations evolve. Ultimately, NASA will choose a place with a history of liquid water that also meets the Mars 2020 mission landing site criteria:
•Does the area show signs that it once had the right environmental conditions to support past microbial life?
•Does the area have a variety of rocks and soils? Did different geologic and environmental processes, including interactions with water, alter them through time?
•Are the rock types able to preserve chemical or mineral signs of past life?
•Can the rover achieve all of the mission’s scientific objectives at this site?
•Is it a good place for a rover to land and travel from place to place?

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will build and manage operations of the Mars 2020 rover for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

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