NASA chooses Jezero Crater as landing site for Mars 2020 rover
Selecting a landing site is one of the most difficult and crucial steps in planning a robotic rover mission to Mars. The scientific value of any given site must be weighed against potential hazards of landing and then driving at this particular location.
On Nov. 19, 2018, NASA announced the selection of Jezero Crater as the landing site for the agency’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. The announcement comes just over a month after the fourth and final site selection workshop, where mission planners and members of the planetary science community debated the merits of these potential sites. Over 60 areas were considered during the five-year selection process.
The Mars 2020 rover will seek out signs of past microbial life on Mars and collect soil and rock samples, storing some of them in a cache on the Martian surface. NASA and the European Space Agency are currently studying concepts for a future mission to retrieve these samples and return them to Earth.
“The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a space agency news release. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”
The selected landing site is in a 28-mile (45-kilometer) wide crater, located on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact crater just north of the Red Planet’s equator. This area once contained an ancient river delta that may have collected and and preserved organic molecules and other signs of ancient microbial life, NASA said.
The geologic features that make Jezero Crater of interest to mission scientists also make it a challenge for the Mars 2020 mission’s entry, descent and landing (EDL) engineers. In addition to the river delta and small impact craters, the site contains many boulders and rocks to the east, cliffs to the west and several sand-filled depressions that could trap the rover.
“The Mars community has long coveted the scientific value of sites such as Jezero Crater, and a previous mission contemplated going there, but the challenges with safely landing were considered prohibitive,” said Ken Farley, project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But what was once out of reach is now conceivable, thanks to the 2020 engineering team and advances in Mars entry, descent and landing technologies.”
One of the most important improvements to the Mars 2020 rover’s EDL systems is a new capability called Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN), this should enable the rocket-powered “sky-crane” descent stage that carries the rover to detect and avoid potentially hazardous terrain.
According to NASA, the site selection of Jezero Crater is dependent on extensive testing and verification of the TRN capability. A final report will be presented to NASA Headquarters and an independent review board in the Fall of 2019. The Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in July of 2020.
“Nothing has been more difficult in robotic planetary exploration than landing on Mars,” Zurbuchen said. “The Mars 2020 engineering team has done a tremendous amount of work to prepare us for this decision. The team will continue their work to truly understand the TRN system and the risks involved, and we will review the findings independently to reassure we have maximized our chances for success.”
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.