The American space agency (Nasa) says it will send its 2020 Mars rover to a location known as Jezero Crater.
Nasa believes the rocks in this nearly 50km-wide bowl could conceivably hold a record of ancient life on the planet.
Satellite images of Jezero point to river water having once cut through its rim and flowed via deltas into a system of lakes.
It is the kind of environment that might just have supported microbes more than 3.5 billion years ago.
The 2020 rover will go equipped to search for potential “bio-markers” in the crater’s sediments.
It will also select and “cache” in small canisters some rock samples that could, at some later date, be collected and returned to Earth labs for analysis.
Jezero is sited just north of Mars’ equator. It is named after a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In some Slavic languages the word “jezero” also means “lake”.
The 500m-deep crater was chosen as the destination after a four-year consultation process with Mars scientists. In a straw-poll taken at the end of the most recent site-selection workshop, it came out the clear favourite. Nasa’s administration has now endorsed the choice.
The 2020 rover is based on the 1-tonne Curiosity robot that the agency landed in Gale Crater in 2012.
Instrument-wise, the new vehicle is quite a bit different, however. Yes, it will again feature cameras, a robotic arm, a drill and a laser – but there is a new suite of sensors and analysis tools, and there is even an experiment to demonstrate how future astronauts might make oxygen on the Red Planet.
The new robot will use the same “Skycrane” technology that put Curiosity down with such great precision six years ago – but with an add-on. Engineers have developed an on-the-fly mapping system called Terrain-Relative Navigation which they expect to bring even greater accuracy to the landing process.
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