Scientists are meeting this week to discuss landing sites for NASA’s next Mars rover, an ambitious mission that not only will attempt to look for past life on Mars, but also stash samples drilled out from rocks for a future rover to retrieve and fly back to Earth for analysis. The point of the meeting is to discuss the current top candidate landing sites, though the list likely will change as new images and science data come in from satellites orbiting Mars and from NASA’s ongoing Curiosity and Opportunity rover missions.
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The new mission, still generically referred to as Mars 2020, is due to blast off in July or August 2020 and land itself in February 2021 using a heat shield, parachutes and Curiosity’s “skycrane” tethered descent system (pictured here). Engineers also are working to develop a “terrain recognition navigation” system that would allow the descending spacecraft to take pictures and match them with imagery stored in its computer for more precise steering. That system could make many more potential landing sites safe for touchdown. Another concern is how fast the rover could traverse the surface so that it can meet its mission goals, including drilling and cache 20 samples, in one Martian year, or 668 Earth days.)
Here’s a look at some of the leading landing site contenders.