NASA’s next Mars mission will search for fossilized remains of ancient life near once lake

NASA's Mars2020 rover will explore Jezero Crater in search of life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is gearing up to launch its next Mars rover. Dubbed 2020, the roving scientist is set to blast off to the Red Planet next year, aiming to find signs of life and bag samples for eventual return to Earth.

The rover, scheduled to launch next summer, will touch down in February 2021. It’s landing site: a 28-mile-wide crater on the Martian surface, dubbed Jezero Crater, which scientists think hosted a lake in Mars’s past.

Recent data collected from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also shows that Jezero contains mineral deposits known to preserve microfossils here on Earth.

Hydrated silica is one such mineral and thanks to the eagle-eyed orbiter, scientists have identified not one but two patches in the crater.

Orbital imagery has also revealed the remnants of a large delta in Jezero. Deltas are the place where rivers drain into a lake. These are promising areas for life and one of the main factors in choosing this specific location as the landing site.

“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 news release.”Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”

A map of the mineral content in Jezero crater. The green color represents carbonates, which are good at preserving fossilized life on Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

But that’s not the only exciting discovery at Jezero. Carbonate minerals were also found. This is exciting because many organisms here on Earth use carbonate minerals to make sturdy structures, like seashells. These structures can last for billions of years once fossilized.

Scientists say that carbonates plus evidence of ancient water is the perfect combination for preservation. Meaning it’s an excellent spot to search for any signs of past lifeforms and to uncover clues about Mars’s climate history.

Carbonates are not biosignatures or signs of life, but they’re an exciting discovery because they form from the interaction between water and carbon dioxide. So they could also tell us how Mars transitioned from a warm and wet climate to the harsh, cold desert world we see today.

“The possibility that the ‘marginal carbonates’ formed in the lake environment was one of the most exciting features that led us to our Jezero landing site. Carbonate chemistry on an ancient lakeshore is a fantastic recipe for preserving records of ancient life and climate,” Ken Williford Mars 2020 Deputy Project Scientist said in a statement. “We’re eager to get to the surface and discover how these carbonates formed.”

Anatomy of a Mars2020 rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Cal-tech

Anatomy of a Mars2020 rover. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Cal-tech)

The Mars 2020 rover will scan the crater in search of any potential biosignatures. To that end, the robotic scientist will act as a remote geologist, studying rocks in fine details, caching samples for later return to Earth, and using special instruments to identify minerals in rocks.

Another big aspect of the Mars 2020 mission will be to collect samples for eventual return to Earth, where scientists around the world can study the material.

Mars 2020, will receive an official name before launch as part of a student naming competition hosted by NASA. The six-wheeled rover is destined to touch down in Jezero crater on Feb. 18, 2021, following a July 2020 launch. Around the same time, it’s European counterpart, the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover will arrive on Mars at a soon-to-be-announced location.

NASA’s next Mars mission will search for fossilized remains of ancient life near once lake
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