In Search of a Landing Zone on Mars
By Amanda Jermyn

Our fascination with Mars has been heightened by the prospect of sending humans to the red planet some time in the not too distant future. While companies such as SpaceX work towards this goal, NASA has plans to send up yet another unmanned rover to help pave the way.

The Mars 2020 rover mission has several objectives. One is to study the processes that formed and modified the geology at the selected landing site. A related goal is to analyze the geologic materials found there to determine if life could have once flourished on Mars. The mission will be focusing on areas that once harbored water and where the environment might have been conducive to the development of life. Scientists will also be looking for materials that can be analyzed for potential evidence of past life itself. The plan is to assemble carefully documented samples of such materials for possible return to Earth by future missions.

Another important objective is to prepare for human exploration of Mars by learning more about how conditions on the planet might affect human health, safety and survival. With this in mind, scientists plan to test technology designed to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere to enable human explorers to breathe. They will also look for water resources such as ice or water-bearing minerals for potential use by future Mars pioneers. They plan to analyze Martian dust to understand its effects on human health and on the operation of equipment on the surface of the planet. They also plan to analyze Martian weather.

With these factors in mind, the mission planners have narrowed down the list of potential landing sites to three. One potential site is an impact crater called Jezero. This crater once hosted a lake about the size of Lake Tahoe, and also a river delta between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years old. To form a delta water must flow in an area over a long period of time, and the longer water is present, the more hospitable it is to life. There is also evidence of clay minerals in the lake, and on Earth, these kinds of minerals are known to preserve organic matter.

Another potential site is Columbia Hills, within Gusev Crater, an area previously explored by the Mars rover, Spirit. There Spirit discovered hot mineral springs that might once have been similar to the hydrothermal regions of Yellowstone National Park that host an abundance of microbial life. There is also evidence of past floods and a shallow lake in the crater. The rover would have to land on a flat area of volcanic rock, and would then take between 3 to 6 months to travel the 3 miles from there to the hydrothermal region. While on this slow journey the rover could sample and collect volcanic rocks which, when eventually returned to Earth, could be analyzed to help determine the age of this region of Mars. Once the rover reaches the hydrothermal area, there are potentially several types of samples of interest to be collected, including opaline silica, a mineral that on Earth is sometimes formed biologically.

The third potential landing site for the Mars 2020 rover mission is Northeast Syrtis Major, an area once warmed by volcanic activity, causing hot springs to flow and surface ice to melt. Microbes could have flourished in this mineral-rich water. The clays and carbonate and sulfate minerals found there are also good at preserving evidence of organic matter. So this would be a good place to look for signs of ancient life. Because this site is geologically very old, it could also help us learn about the first four to five hundred million years of Mars’ history, and gasses trapped in volcanic glass there could help us understand the early atmosphere of the planet. This site also has an advantage over the other two in that the rover could land in the region it plans to explore without having to do months of traveling to reach its goal.

Stay tuned to find out where the next Mars rover will land in 2021!

Join the Springfield Stars Club on Tuesday, February 27th at 7:00pm at the Springfield Science Museum for a talk by Kenneth S. Thomas, author of “The Journey to Moonwalking,” a story of the effort, sacrifice and innovation required to allow the first humans to set foot on and explore the Moon. Thomas was a spacesuit engineer for 22 years, during which time he became an expert on Apollo spacesuit development. He has been a consultant to the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum since 1993. Refreshments will be served, and the public is welcome. The meeting is free of charge for members, with a suggested donation of $2 per non-member.

Also, on Friday, March 2nd at 7:30pm, the Stars Club and the Springfield Science Museum will host “Stars over Springfield,” an astronomy adventure for the whole family. Amateur astronomer Ed Faits will present: “How do Astronomers know the Distances to the Stars?” A fee of $3 for adults and $2 for children under 18 will be charged.