The Best Map Yet of What Could Be NASA’s Next Mars Landing Site

Bramble and his colleagues used high-resolution photographs from NASA’s HiRISE camera and geomorphic data from the agency’s CRISM instrument (both in Mars orbit, aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) to produce the highest resolution, most complete map ever produced of Northeast Syrtis, a popular candidate landing site for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover.BRAMBLE ET AL.

ON THE NIGHT of November 28, 1659, a Dutch astronomer named Christiaan Huygens aimed toward the sky a 22-foot telescope of his own invention, peered through its compound eyepiece, and drew the first known illustration—the first map, really—of Mars. His sketch, though crude, captured a dark, distinctive surface feature. Today, astronomers know it as Syrtis Major.

And they’re about to get to know it a lot better.

At Syrtis Major’s northeastern edge you’ll find one of the most intriguing crops of geology ever observed on another planet. Its terrain—sandwiched between a large volcano and one of the biggest, oldest craters on Mars—preserves a chapter of the planet’s early history marked by warm, watery environments where microbial life might have flourished. Now, 358 years after Hyugens first described Syrtis Major’s outlines, planetary geologists have charted its fascinating northeasterly province at higher resolution, and in finer geological detail, than ever before.

“People have explored the mineralogy and geology of the larger area before, but nobody has put down the magnifying glass and looked at this one region up close,” says Michael Bramble, the planetary geologist at Brown University who led the mapping effort.

His team’s map, which appears in the latest issue of the planetary science journal Icarus, recounts the history of Northeast Syrtis. “It’s a big step for the planetary science community,” says UT Austin geoscientist Tim Goudge. “It helps us understand what happened here, why it’s unique, why it’s so mineralogically diverse.” That’s a big endorsement: Not only is Goudge unaffiliated with Bramble’s project, he’s something of a rival.

See, Northeast Syrtis is one of the two most promising landing sites currently under consideration for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. The competing landing site is Jezero crater, home to an ancient lake whose sediments might now carry traces of past life—and Goudge is its lead mapper.

Planetary scientists have been deliberating over where to land NASA’s rover for several years now. And with good reason: The site’s composition will have a major impact on the agency’s research. NASA’s next rover, which is slated to launch in 2020, will investigate Mars’ geological history, evaluate the planet’s past habitability, and hunt for signs of ancient life. Crucially, it will also be the first rover to cache samples of Martian soil and rock—samples which NASA hopes to retrieve on a future mission and analyze here on Earth.

NASA is getting closer to a verdict. Northeast Syrtis and Jezero rose to the top of the pack just in February, when some 200 planetary scientists convened at a workshop in Monrovia, California to trim the list of recommended candidates from eight to three. (Columbia Hills, a site previously explored by NASA’s Spirit Rover, also made the cut, though the other sites seem more promising).

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