NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is the next major interplanetary mission that will be sent to the Red Planet to look for signs of past habitability, martian life, and will collect samples to return to Earth. The rover is set to land in February 2021, but where it will land no one yet knows.
Astronomers working on the mission have met a few times to narrow down the list of landing sites, and will meet a fourth time in mid-2018 to pick the final destination.
The final three candidates on that list, which was narrowed down from the previous list of eight sites, include Northeast Syrtis Major, Jezero Crater, and Columbia Hills/Gusev Crater.
Jezero Crater is of interest because of its dried-up lake that could potentially provide evidence of a previous microbial life form. Northeast Syrtis Major is in an area that astronomers thought was warm and wet at one point but now hosts a shield volcano near an impact crater. The area with the most mixed responses was Columbia Hills, where the Spirit rover had previously found volcanic ash, suggesting an old active hot spring and a chance to find past life on Mars.
“Mars 2020 is not a life-detection mission, but I think targeted to the right place we can make great strides toward finally answering the question about life on Mars,” John Grant, geologist at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and co-chair of the Mars 2020 Landing Site Steering Committee, told Scientific American. “It gets us down the road [to find out].”
Though this rover is very similar to the Curiosity, its software upgrades with make it operate quicker, more efficiently, and more independently.
Due to funding, Mars 2020 is currently NASA’s last confirmed mission heading to Mars. The lack of funding may have an impact on research on the Red Planet, but researchers are remaining optimistic.