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Possible Landing Sites Selected for Europe's Mars Rover

European space officials are eyeing four possible landing sites on Mars for a life-seeking rover set to launch toward the Red Planet in 2018.

European space officials are eyeing four possible landing sites on Mars for a life-seeking rover set to launch toward the Red Planet in 2018.

All of the potential ExoMars rover landing sites are located near the Red Planet's equator, where ancient exposed rocks could reveal clues about the wet past on Mars.

PHOTOS: Mars Through Curiosity's Powerful MAHLI Camera

The ExoMars program - a joint effort by the European Space Agency, or ESA, and Russia's Roscosmos space agency - is actually comprised of two missions. A gas-sniffing orbiter with a demonstration lander named Schiaparelli is due to launch in January 2016 and arrive at Mars nine months later. The 660-pound (300 kilograms) rover is scheduled to leave Earth in May 2018 and touch down in January 2019. [Europe's ExoMars Missions in Pictures]

"The present-day surface of Mars is a hostile place for living organisms, but primitive life may have gained a foothold when the climate was warmer and wetter, between 3.5 billion and 4 billion years ago," Jorge Vago, ESA's ExoMars project scientist, explained in a statement. "Therefore, our landing site should be in an area with ancient rocks where liquid water was once abundant. Our initial assessment clearly identified four landing sites that are best suited to the mission's scientific goals."

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The scientific community was asked to propose possible landing sites for the ExoMars rover in December 2013. ESA officials said that there were four clear front-runners of the eight proposals considered during a workshop. Now an ESA-appointed panel has officially recommended those sites - Mawrth Vallis, Oxia Planum, Hypanis Vallis and Aram Dorsum - for further analysis. Those next steps will include simulations to assess the probability of landing success.

The vast rock exposures at two of the possible landing sites - Mawrth Vallis and nearby Oxia Planum - are more than 3.8 billion years old and they're rich in clay, a material that hints that water once flowed over the landscape. The rocks, which have varied compositions, were exposed by erosion only within the last few hundred million years. That's relatively recent compared to the exposure date for other rock layers on Mars, and scientists hope the rocks are still well preserved against damage from harsh radiation and oxidation.

NEWS: Russia to Become ExoMars' Knight in Shining Armor?

Hypanis Vallis, meanwhile, lies on an area that's thought to be the remnant of an ancient river delta with distinct layers of fine-grained rocks deposited about 3.45 billion years ago. Lastly, the Aram Dorsum area is bisected by a channel surrounded by rocks that are thought to be sediments deposited much like those around the Nile River, according to ESA scientists.

"While all four sites are clearly interesting scientifically, they must also allow for the operational and engineering requirements for safe landing and roving on the surface," Vago added in a statement.

Mission managers hope to make a final decision by 2017.

More from SPACE.com:

NASA's Inflatable Flying Saucer for Mars Landings (Photo Gallery)

Photos: Ancient Mars Lake Could Have Supported Life Mars Rover Curiosity's 7 Biggest Discoveries (So Far)

Originally published on Space.com. Copyright 2014 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Artist's impression of the European ExoMars rover exploring the Martian surface.

MAHLI Power

Since NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity landed on the red planet, each sol (a Martian "day") of the mission sees a flood of new photographs from Aeolis Palus -- the plain inside Gale Crater where Curiosity landed on Aug. 5. In September 2012, mission controllers sent the command for Curiosity to flip open the dust cap in front of the robotic arm-mounted Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Until that point, the semi-transparent dust cap only allowed MAHLI to make out fuzzy shapes -- although it did a great job imaging Curiosity's "head" and it is also famous for capturing Curiosity's first color photograph. But since the true clarity of MAHLI has been unleashed, we've been treated to some of the most high-resolution views of the rover, Martian landscape and, most importantly, we've seen exactly what MAHLI was designed to do: Look closely at Mars rocks and dirt, assembling geological evidence of potential past habitability of Mars.

The Business End

Curiosity is armed with 17 cameras and MAHLI is designed to capture close-up photos of geological samples and formations as the rover explores. MAHLI was designed and built by Malin Space Science Systems and is analogous to a geologist's hand lens -- only a lot more sophisticated. Its high-resolution system can focus and magnify objects as small as 12.5 micrometers (that's smaller than the width of a human hair!). This photograph captured by the rover's Mastcam shows the MAHLI lens (with dust cap in place) in the center of the end of Curiosity's instrument-laden robotic arm.

Lights On!

To aid its studies, MAHLI is equipped with four LEDs to light up the imager's samples.

Mars Dirt

The first photograph to be returned from MAHLI without the dust cover in place was received on Sol 33 (Sept. 8) of Curiosity's mission. Shown here is a view of the ground immediately in front of the rover. Although this photo was a test, mission scientists were able to do a very preliminary study of the large "pebble" at the bottom of the picture: "Notice that the ground immediately around that pebble has less dust visible (more gravel exposed) than in other parts of the image. The presence of the pebble may have affected the wind in a way that preferentially removes dust from the surface around it," they wrote.

How Did Lincoln Help MAHLI?

On Sol 34 (Sept. 9), MAHLI was aimed at Curiosity's calibration target. This target is intended to color balance the instrument and provide a "standard" for mission scientists to refer to. The 1909 Lincoln penny was provided by MAHLI's principal investigatory Ken Edgett. Using a penny as a calibration target is a nod to geologists' tradition of placing a coin or some other object of known scale as a size reference in close-up photographs of rocks, says the MSL mission site.

Dusty Wheels

Although MAHLI will be used to examine microscopic scales, it is showing its prowess at generating some spectacular high-definition views of the rover. Shown here is a mosaic of Curiosity's three left-side dusty wheels.

Hazard Avoidance Cameras

Hazard Avoidance Cameras, or Hazcams, have become "standard issue" for the last three rovers to land on Mars. Mounted on the front and back of rovers Opportunity, Spirit and Curiosity, these small cameras provide invaluable information about the terrain and potential hazards surrounding the rovers. These cameras are not scientific cameras -- they are engineering cameras. Shown here, MAHLI has imaged the four front Hazcams on Curiosity. Interestingly, it was these cameras who returned Curiosity's first dusty image after touch down in August.

Underbelly

Using the flexibility of the robotic arm, MAHLI was able to check the underside of Curiosity. As the camera can focus on objects from 0.8 inch (2.1 centimeters) to infinity, MAHLI has incredible versatility allowing mission controllers to focus on the very small features of Mars to checking the health of the rover to viewing the impressive vistas beyond.

Mystery Object

In October 2012, the Internet was abuzz with speculation about a "mystery object" lying beneath the rover during digging operations at "Rocknest." Sadly, after studying the translucent object, mission scientists deduced that it wasn't anything native to the alien environment, it was actually a piece of plastic that had fallen from Curiosity. Yes, Curiosity is littering the red planet.

Digging In

The MAHLI camera was very attentive while Curiosity dug trenches in the Mars soil at "Rocknest."

Mars Flower?

In early 2013, MAHLI snapped another curious photo. This time, after driving to a rocky outcrop at a location dubbed "Yellowknife," the camera picked out what appeared to be some kind of organic-looking object embedded in the rock. Nope, it's not a Mars "flower" -- more likely it's a concentration of minerals.

Cheese!

In what has become an iconic photo of Curiosity, MAHLI was commanded to capture dozens of high-resolution pictures of the rover. Like an "arms length" shot you may have in your Facebook profile, Curiosity did the same, composing a mosaic of pics taken with its outstretched robotic arm.

Curiosity Cleans Up!

The Mars rover isn't only a scientific superstar, it also has a talent for cleaning. This circular pattern on a Mars rock was brushed aside by Curiosity's Dust Removal Tool (DRT), helping the rover carry out analysis of the rock surface beneath the layer of dirt.