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NASA picks three Martian wet patches for 2020 splashdown

Bug-hunting mission's final landing site candidates are thought to have seen water flow

NASA has decided its Mars 2020 mission will land a rover in one of three places, all of which are thought to have once seen liquid water flowing.

While the rest of us spent last week tut-tutting about IBM's teleworking turnaround, NASA boffins gathered at the Doubletree Hotel in Monrovia, CA, where they conducted a workshop to consider the scientific merits of eight previously-shortlisted landing sites.

Those deliberations tried to answer eight questions about candidate landing sites:

  • Can the Mars 2020 rover achieve all of the mission's scientific objectives - number one being to examine the likelihood that Mars hosted life - at this site?
  • Does the area show signs in the rock record that it once had the right environmental conditions to support past microbial life?
  • Does the area have a variety of rocks and soils (regolith), including those from an ancient time when Mars could have supported life?
  • Did different geologic and environmental processes, including interactions with water, alter these rocks through time?
  • Are the rock types at the site able to preserve physical, chemical, mineral, or molecular signs of past life?
  • Is the potential high for scientists to make fundamental discoveries with the samples cached by the rover, if potentially returned to Earth someday?
  • Does the landing site have water resources (water ice and/or water-bearing minerals) that the rover could study to understand their potential use by future human explorers?
  • Can the rover land and travel from place to place without facing significant hazards posed by the terrain?

After what The Register imagines was a lot of bad coffee, NASA's decided on the following three sites as final landing candidates:

  • Columbia Hills, a location already visited by the Spirit rover and thought to have once been the site of mineral springs once that may have fed a shallow lake;
  • Jezero Crater, another former lake site that's filled and drained at least twice in the last 3.5 billion years. It's hoped sediments might contain evidence of microbial life;
  • NE Syrtis, a spot where we hypothesise volcanic activity brought subterranean water to the surface, and /or melted surface ice. Whatever went on, it looks like liquid water came into contact with useful-for-life minerals on many occasions.

Whichever site NASA eventually selects, it will be visited by a SkyCrane similar to that which brought the Curiosity Rover to Mars, but with the ability to survey the surface and divert closer to its designated touchdown location. The Rover, dubbed “Odyssey”, will be based on Curiosity and indeed use some spare parts of its predecessor. It will also get tougher wheels and a new package of instruments.

Odyssey will also be capable of storing samples in packages. Mission plans call for those samples to be cached, in the hope that a future mission can retrieve them and bring them back to Earth.

The fun should start in July 2020, the expected month of the craft's launch. ®

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