A preferred landing site for Europe’s Martian-life chasing rover ExoMars has been selected after a year-long evaluation of four candidate sites.
Scientists from the European Space Agency (Esa) and its partnering organisations have recommended the rover to explore the Oxia Planum region as they believe it presents the best conditions for preserving the signs of past or present life as well as supporting a successful landing.
As the environment on Mars is extremely harsh, traces of life are likely to have been erased in most areas. The researchers hope some evidence might have remained underground in areas where water used to be abundant.
Four locations – Aram Dorsum, Hypanis Vallis, Mawrth Vallis and Oxia Planum - were put forward last year, all of them meeting the conditions for preserving life.
The Esa team has spent a year evaluating the four candidate sites before selecting Oxia Planum based on engineering constraints, risks during descent and landing and the likelihood of a positive scientific outcome of the mission.
The ExoMars mission consists of the rover, an orbiter and an immobile lander. While the rover, equipped with a 2m-long drill to search for signs of life underground, will be launched to the Red Planet in 2018, the orbiter and lander are scheduled to go already in March 2016.
The orbiter will study the atmosphere around the planet and serve as communication support during the landing of the rover.
The experimental Schiaparelli landing module, to land in the Meridiani Planum area, will serve as a test-bed for evaluating the design of landing systems of the rover.
Scientists believe primitive life may have been abundant on Mars some 3.6 billion years ago when the planet’s surface was wetter.
Buried or recently exhumed layered sedimentary deposits thus offer the best window into this important period of Mars history.
All four locations considered for the landing should enable the rover to reach promising sites within a short drive.