A team of NASA scientists has cut the number of potential landing sites for the 2020 Mars rover mission from eight to three.
The project –part of the Mars exploration program — will try to answer questions about how and when the Red Planet may have harbored life. In addition, it will gather new knowledge about the world by collecting rock samples from the surface and testing technologies that could one day be used to enhance future space exploration, Tech Times reports.
Though the agency has been debating the best new landing site for some time, a recent workshop in Monrovia allowed them to narrow it down to three places: Northeast Syrtis, Jezero Crater, and Columbia Hills.
Each of these sites is of interest because they all have elements that could help researchers explore Mars’ past. For example, previous evidence shows river channels covered Jerezo Crater some 3.5 billion years ago. These channels may have spilled over the walls and created a lake that may have harbored microbial life.
In contrast, Columbia Hills — which has already been explored by the Spirit Rover — once had hot springs. Studies also have found evidence of Silica rocks in the area that is very similar to hydrothermal deposits found on Earth.
“To go back to Columbia Hills — I think it’s a great site,” Jim Rice, geology team leader on the Mars Exploration rover project, told Seeker. “In that location, there are hot springs or geysers going off there in the past. We know enough about ancient environments to know that is a great place to look for ancient organisms.”
Finally, Northeast Syrtis makes for a good candidate because the region has shown signs of ancient volcanic activity. That heat would have likely melted surface ice and created liquid water that could have allowed microbes to flourish.
The Rover mission plans to further assess all of the sites in order to test the habitability of their respective environments. It also will search for evidence of previous life and look for natural resources in each area.
“We are looking for interesting shapes and chemistries that are correlated as possible signs of life,” Ken Williford, deputy project scientist of the Mars 2020 rover, told Seeker. “That’s what will guide us as we choose our locations to sample.”
Whichever one is chosen, the mission will launch in July 2020 aboard the Atlas V 541 rocket from the Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The entire mission will be managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.