When you have a shiny new Mars rover finally built with all the latest high-tech gadgets, there’s only one question left before launch: Where are you going to land it?
Figuring out where NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover — or any rover — should touch down isn’t just a matter of eyeballing landing sites. This is why it’s going to take hundreds of scientists and other Mars-heads putting their brains together in a hotel ballroom later this week to make presentations and start discussions and deliberations about where in that red dust Mars 2020 should leave its first tracks.
NASA is under an astronomical amount of pressure for this one. Not that Opportunity and Curiosity weren’t each a big deal, but Mars 2020 is going to be the first rover designed to probe the Martian surface for signs of ancient microbial life. It's loaded with new tech and a sample system that will leave the cache of samples it collects in the dust for a future mission to return to Earth. Whatever lands on Mars after Mars 2020 may be the one that flies those alien specimens where they can be examined by human eyes and microscopes, something previously unprecedented.
"The Mars 2020 landing site could set the stage for Mars exploration for the next decade," said NASA Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen. "I'm looking forward to the spirited debate and critical input from the science and engineering community. Once returned to Earth, these samples will likely become the most analyzed soil samples in history, as they promise to address some very tantalizing questions driving NASA’s Science program."
Mars 2020 started out with 30 potential landing sites. Colombia Hills, Jezero Crater, and Northeast Syrtis were the only ones left until recently, when project scientists began to get serious about a proposal for a landing site between Jezero and Northeast Syrtis, now called “Midway." The ideal landing site should be at a lower elevation, because Mars has zero atmosphere to slow an incoming object down before it crashes. It should also be free of any huge rocks that could be the death of all those hyper-sensitive instruments. Mars is so dusty that another thing to watch out for is any place with a thick layer of it.
Next to these guidelines, NASA also wants the best chance it can get to unearth fossilized evidence of what was once Martian life.
At the workshop, there will be presentations given about the positives and negatives of each of the proposed sites, and the Mars 2020 project team will then carefully consider these results before it incorporates them into a recommendation to NASA.
“Our goal is to get to the right site that provides the maximum science for Mars 2020,” Mars 2020 Project Scientist Ken Farley said.
The final decision should be expected to go viral by the end of the year.