NASA is aiming its next Mars rover at an ancient river delta, a location where evidence of past life could still be preserved — if life ever did arise on Mars.
The rover, scheduled to launch in July 2020, will largely be a clone of NASA’s Curiosity rover, which is currently exploring Mars. But it will carry a new set of instruments geared to searching for the carbon building blocks of life and other signs of past microbes. After it blasts off, it will arrive on the red planet in February 2021.
Jezero, a 28-mile-wide crater just north of Mars’s Equator, was chosen from four finalist sites. Analysis of images, taken from satellites orbiting Mars, suggests that the crater was once filled with a lake that was 800 feet deep. There are also signs of rivers that flowed into and out of the lake.
More than 3.5 billion years ago, scientists believe, Mars’s climate was warmer and wetter and possibly suited for life. After considering 64 proposed landing sites in all, scientists recommended Jezero as the most promising place to explore.
“Lakes on Earth are both very habitable and inevitably inhabited,” said Kenneth Farley, the mission’s project scientist, during a telephone news conference on Monday. “So that’s the first attraction.”
“The second attraction is that a delta is extremely good at preserving biosignatures, any evidence of life that might have existed,” he added.
Dr. Farley emphasized that the rover is not carrying tools to look for any living microbes, and said that the Martian surface today is too dry, too cold and too bombarded by radiation for microbes to survive.
The region contains carbonate rocks, which could give clues to what the environment was like. And there are volcanic rocks, which likely contain radioactive elements that could yield more precise dates about when the lake existed.
The rover will also collect rocks to someday be brought back to Earth for further study. Those samples, however, will sit on Mars until a future mission returns them to Earth, likely not before the early 2030s, said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate.
The rover will carry several cameras, a weather station, ground-penetrating radar and instruments to analyze the minerals and possible organic compounds on the surface of Mars. The rover will also take along a miniature helicopter to photograph the terrain.
NASA’s rover will be one of two headed to Mars in 2020. Scientists working on the ExoMars rover, a collaboration between Russia and the European Space Agency, have recommended Oxia Planum, a plain in the planet’s northern hemisphere that is rich with sediments and that appears to have formed in the presence of water. ExoMars will have a drill that will be able to poke some six feet below the surface.
On Monday next week, NASA will attempt to land its InSight spacecraft on a plain that scientists have described as one of the most boring places on Mars. Launched in May, InSight will study the inside of the planet to develop a clearer picture of its seismic activity and geological history.
NASA is also listening out for the Opportunity rover, which has gone silent since the solar panels that power it were covered by a Martian dust storm in June. If the vehicle does not respond in the months ahead, the mission may be brought to an end.