We’re Officially Sending a New Martian Rover to Search for Life on the Red Planet

Is there life on Mars? If so, we’re going to hunt it down. NASA’s next Red Planet rover is almost ready to make its big voyage to Mars. The next big milestone? Figuring out where this special spacecraft is going to touch down on the surface.

What Is Mars 2020?

People, this mission is an exciting step. NASA has had a bunch of rovers on the surface in recent decades, finding clear evidence of ancient running water through erosion and rocks that tend to form in the liquid. But looking for life? Finding it would represent a whole new game. Even just a single Martian microbe would be fascinating because we can compare its biology to that of Earth microbes.

The rover — temporarily called Mars 2020 until a children’s naming contestconcludes — is the most capable life-seeking machine on Mars yet. The goal of the mission is to directly seek signs of ancient Martian microbes. After all, we know that Mars has ancient volcanoes and ice caps and possible running water on the surface. With such an active planet, perhaps life is still lurking there somewhere.

On the off chance that this (possible) life is hazardous to humans, NASA doesn’t plan to bring back the microbes — at least, not yet. The agency takes our health very seriously and tries to protect other planets from our nasty microbes through its Planetary Protection Office. So when Mars 2020 finds something interesting, it will cache the samples in a safe spot. A future mission will pick up the samples and return them back to Earth, once NASA figures out how to do so.

Touching Down on Mars

Scientists are holding a series of workshops this week to debate four potential landing sites: Columbia Hills, Jezero Crater, Northeast Syrtis, and a new site in between Jezero and Northeast Syrtis dubbed “Midway.” Discussions will wrap up tomorrow (Oct. 18) and then the workshop participants will collaborate on a recommendation to send to NASA. By the end of the year, there should be a winning site.

It’ll be a tough slog for scientists because Mars is rife with locations that had running water in the ancient past. Even Columbia Hills — a site that we already visited with NASA’s Spirit rover between 2004 and 2011 — has the potential for new findings because the new Mars 2020 has much more capable instruments than Spirit did.

“I have attended all the workshops so far, and none have disappointed when it comes to intelligent advocation and lively debate,” Ken Farley, a project scientist of Mars 2020 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “But this is what science is all about — the cogent and respectable exchange of ideas. The passion of the participants shows just how much they care about Mars exploration. They know they are playing a key role in the process, and they know how important the landing site for Mars 2020 will be.”

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