NASA has selected the Jezero Crater as the landing site for the much anticipated Mars 2020 rover mission. The announcement ends a five-year search during which over 60 different locations were considered.
“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,” said associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”
The Jezero Crater is located just North of the Martian equator on the western edge of a giant impact basin called the Isidis Planitia. The 45-kilometre (28-mile) wide crater was once home to an ancient river delta. It is believed that the river may have deposited ancient organic molecules and signs of microbial life that, if preserved could offer invaluable scientific insight.
“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 project scientist for Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Ken Farley. “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.”
Much of the capability that will enable the Jezero Crater landing is due to NASA’s Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN). The revolutionary navigation system has allowed engineers to reduce the landing zone to an area half that of the agency’s Curiosity rover at Gale Crater. Although promising, the system still requires extensive analyses and verification testing before it’s greenlit for the Mars 2020 mission. A final review of the TRN system is expected in the fall of 2019.
Now that NASA has selected a landing site, rover operators and researchers can begin to plan what geological features might offer the most scientific interest. To do this, they will use NASA’s fleet of Mars orbiters to map the Jezero Crater’s terrain in greater detail.