NASA Settles on a Landing Site for Its Mars 2020 Rover

The Jezero Crater offers a number of possibilities.

jezereo crater nasa
NASA

NASA knows where it's going on Mars in 2020. Out of 60 possible candidates, the space agency has chosen what's known as the Jezero Crater as its landing site for the Mars 2020 mission.

The choice of landing site fundamentally defines the mission. Of chief concern to NASA is the relationship the Red Planet has with life.

“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,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a . “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”

In 2020, NASA will land the rover in Jezero Crater where it'll explore the location's story of the wet past of Mars. Conceivably, microbial life could have lived here. If so, signs of their remains might be found in lakebed sediments. More info:

— Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ)
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Jezereo first piqued scientific interest in 2005, when two channels of an ancient lake were identified in the region by then-grad student Caleb Fasset of Brown, now a at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. "Water flowing in the valley networks entered the crater," Fasset and co-author James Head , created a pond with a "maximum depth of about 450 m"— around 1,476 feet, a 100 feet deeper than Lake Superior.

A showed that Jerezeo presented "a strong case for at least two periods of water-related activity in Mars' history," said Tim Goudge, also a grad student at Brown and currently of the University of Texas.

Just north of the Martian equator, Jezereo lies on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a huge impact basin 28 miles wide that offers a promising location for any rover. That system could, NASA theorizes, offer up as many as five different types of rock. Those rocks could provide strong insight into the planet's history.

There's also a geologic diversity to the Jezereo that is appealing. It's got river deltas, small crater impacts, nearby cliffs, and boulders and rocks to spare.

“The Mars community has long coveted the scientific value of sites such as Jezero Crater, and a previous mission contemplated going there, but the challenges with safely landing were considered prohibitive,” says Ken Farley, a project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the press statement. “But what was once out of reach is now conceivable, thanks to the 2020 engineering team and advances in Mars entry, descent and landing technologies.”

The biggest change in landing technology since the last time NASA landed on Mars in 2012 has been (TRN). Before rover ever lands, it takes pictures of the landing surface. Then, as it lands, the TRN allows the lander to compare the real-time landing site with its images. Comparing landmarks allows the rover to divert itself if it drifts off course.

“Nothing has been more difficult in robotic planetary exploration than landing on Mars,” says Zurbuchen. “The Mars 2020 engineering team has done a tremendous amount of work to prepare us for this decision. The team will continue their work to truly understand the TRN system and the risks involved, and we will review the findings independently to reassure we have maximized our chances for success.”

There's a lot riding on Mars 2020. NASA hopes that the rover will lay the groundwork for humans to explore next. If findings are fruitful, the Jezero Crater might just find itself as a regular landing site in years ahead.

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