A rover NASA plans to launch to Mars in 2020 will likely explore one of three locations selected last week by a scientific advisory group, which picked candidate landing sites that were once homes to ancient lakes and hot springs.
The six-wheeled robot, similar in capability and appearance to NASA’s Curiosity rover currently on Mars, will look for signs of past Martian life, assess the habitability of the environment, and measure the mineral, organic make-up of rocks and chemical, with an emphasis on hunting for biosignatures, the natural relics left behind by alien microbes.
The other chief objectives of NASA will be to collect at least 30 test tube-sized core samples for possible retrieval and return to Earth on a future mission. It will further test a new device to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, validating a tool future missions could employ to produce breathable air, water and rocket fuel.
The robotic mission is officially named Mars 2020 will launch in July 2020 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket and reach the red planet in February 2021, descending through the atmosphere with the assistance of a heat shield, braking rockets and parachutes before cables unreal to place the rover on the surface.
Spirit found the clue that the region had a watery past after climbing from its touchdown point in the basin of Gusev Crater into rounded highlands named for the astronauts who died aboard the shuttle Columbia.
The rover drove 4.8 miles during its mission and kept going after one of its wheels stopped turning. The defective right-front wheel dragged up white soil the rover’s spectrometer dogged the material was nearly pure silica and scientists linked the unexpected discovery with the presence of ancient hot springs and steam vents.
Scientists said, such an environment could have introduced microbes billions of years ago, making it an ideal location to land the Mars 2020 rover. Spirit reached a feature named “Home Plate,” the remnant of a hydrovolcanic explosion involving three key ingredients for life: energy, water and heat. The Spirit rover, which functioned 25 times longer than its 90-day design life, also found outcrops of carbonate in the Columbia Hills, deposits which scientists say were placed during a wetter period of Martian history.
Scientists say information on Spirit’s condition could give engineers insight into how extreme temperature swings, dust storms and possible micrometeorites affect hardware like optics, actuators, coatings and cabling on Mars, providing a bonus opportunity for a “long-duration exposure experiment.”
The other two potential targets for the Mars 2020 rover are a region named Northeast Syrtis, a location that appears to be rich in layered clays with some of the oldest terrain found on Mars and Jezero Crater, home to an ancient river delta.
Jezero and Northeast Syrtis about 30 miles apart lie at about 18 degrees north latitude. Neither place has been explored on the surface.