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Jezero Crater delta
This color-coded image of the Jezero Crater delta combines information from two instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars and the Context Camera. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS / JHU-APL)

One week before the next Mars mission is due to land, NASA has chosen the landing site for its next next Mars mission. Jezero Crater will be where NASA’s yet-to-be-named rover will land on Feb. 18, 2021, the space agency announced today.

“It’s a Thursday,” said Allen Chen, who’s leading the entry, descent and landing team for what’s currently known as NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. That touchdown is due to come seven months after the mission’s launch in mid-July 2020.

Jezero Crater is thought to be the site of an ancient river delta on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. Scientists say the 28-mile-wide crater’s rocks and soil may contain organic molecules and other traces of microbial life from the water and sediments that flowed into the crater billions of years ago.

“The delta is a good place for evidence of life to be deposited and then preserved for the billions of years that have elapsed since this lake was present,” Mars 2020 project scientist Ken Farley explained.

That’s particularly important for because one of the rover’s tasks is to collect samples destined for return to Earth on a mission to be named later, most likely in the early 2030s. Scientists expect Mars 2020 to yield at least five different types of rock, including the kinds of clays and carbonates that are most likely to preserve chemical biosignatures.

“Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a news release.

Jezero Crater, whose name comes from the Serbian word for lake, won out over three other finalist sites near the Martian equator: Midway and Northeast Syrtis, plus Columbia Hills (which is where NASA’s Spirit rover roamed a decade ago). Midway and Northeast Syrtis are close enough that it’s possible the Mars 2020 rover could eventually roll that way from Jezero Crater, although mission managers say it’s way too early to decide whether to do so.

NASA said Jezero won out because of its mix of scientific promise and accessibility. But landing safely isn’t a slam dunk: Scientists want to make sure the rover doesn’t land in a boulder field, a sand trap or on the edge of a cliff.

Farley said Jezero and other sites had been considered too risky for previous Mars missions. “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,” he said.

The six-wheeled, plutonium-powered Mars 2020 rover is built on the same basic design as NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars’ Gusev Crater for more than six years. Like Curiosity, Mars 2020 would be lowered to the surface from a rocket-powered “Sky Crane” platform, which NASA says is the safest way to land a 1-ton payload.

Mars 2020 will take advantage of technological advances that have been made since Curiosity was designed — including higher-resolution imagers, chemical life-detection instruments and even a mini-helicopter. It’ll also have experiments to test technologies that future astronauts will need, such as producing oxygen from Mars’ thin carbon-dioxide atmosphere, and the equipment that’s needed to extract and store samples for future missions to pick up.

The Red Planet has long been a hot spot for planetary exploration, thanks to Curiosity and NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers as well as a fleet of orbiters. It’ll be heating up even further a week from today with the arrival of NASA’s Mars InSight lander.

And in the 2020s, NASA’s next rover is likely to be joined by the European Space Agency’s first rover, which is part of the European-Russian ExoMars exploration campaign. China is  planning to get in on the action with its first-ever Mars mission, also due for launch during 2020’s favorable launch opportunity.

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