NASA selects Martian River-Delta system for Mars 2020 rover landing (Image: Twitter)
NASA has finalised Jezero Crater delta, a 3.6 billion-year-old crater where the sediments contain clays and carbonates, as the landing site for its upcoming Mars 2020 Rover mission, the US space agency said. 45 kilometres in size, Jezero Crate is located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia -- a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Scientists have debated where to land the rover for the past four years, and whittled down their decision from more than 60 possible sites.
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"The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with land forms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology," Mr Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement on Monday.
"Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbour life," he added.
Its ancient lake-delta system offers many promising sampling targets of at least five different kinds of rock, including clays and carbonates that have high potential to preserve signatures of past life.
The crater, once home to an ancient river delta, could have collected and preserved ancient organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater billions of years ago.
In addition, the site contains numerous boulders and rocks to the east, cliffs to the west, and depressions filled with aeolian bedforms (wind-derived ripples in sand that could trap a rover) in several locations.
Selecting a landing site this early allows the Rover drivers and science operations team to optimise their plans for exploring Jezero Crater once the Rover is safely on the ground.
The $2.5 billion rover is planned to launch in July 2020, and land in February 2021.
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It will not only seek signs of ancient habitable conditions and past microbial life but will also collect rock and soil samples and store them in a cache on the planet's surface.
Mars 2020 is designed to land inside the crater and collect samples that will eventually be returned to Earth for further analysis, perhaps by the later 2020s.