NASA Mars Blitz Underway — InSight Lander To Touch Down On Nov. 26

Jezero crater was the site of an ancient lake and now the landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission to look for past life. The outlet canyon carved by overflow flooding is visible in the upper right side of the crater. Ancient rivers carved the inlets on the left side of the crater. There are more than 200 of these paleolakes on Mars. NASA / Tim Goudge

Jezero Crater, which once held a lake with the same volume of water as Lake Winnipeg, has been chosen as the landing site of the upcoming Mars 2020 mission. More than 60 candidate locations were scrutinized and debated before Jezero was selected. Mars 2020 launches in July 2020. When it lands on Mars in February 2021, a rover will hunt for signs of past bacterial life and collect and store rock and soil samples to be retrieved and returned to Earth on a future mission.

“The landing site in Jezero Crater offers geologically rich terrain, with landforms reaching as far back as 3.6 billion years old, that could potentially answer important questions in planetary evolution and astrobiology,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Getting samples from this unique area will revolutionize how we think about Mars and its ability to harbor life.”

This close-up of the delta shown in the first photo shows how water carved channels and transported sediments for form fans and deltas in Jezero crater on ancient Mars.  Data from orbit show that some of these sediments have minerals that indicate chemical alteration by water. The colors indicate different types of rocks. The inflow channel comes in at upper left. NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown University

Jezero Crater is 28 miles wide (45 km) and once home to an ancient river delta that may have preserved organic molecules and potential signs of microbial life. From orbit, satellites have identified at least five different kinds of rock in the crater including clays and carbonates, minerals that form in presence of water. This diversity of landforms also makes it challenging for the team to land the rover. Along with the usual small impact craters there are lots of boulders, cliffs and depressions filled with sand deposited by Martian winds.

NASA’s got its hands full. Well before Mars 2020 arrives, the Mars InSight lander is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet at about 2 p.m. (Central Time) Monday, Nov. 26. You can tune in to watch coverage of the live event on NASA Live.


This illustration shows a simulated view of NASA’s InSight lander firing retrorockets to slow down as it descends toward the surface of Mars. NASA / JPL-Caltech

InSight is an acronym for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. Unlike other missions to explore and map the Martian surface or atmosphere, the InSight lander will study the planet’s interior using a seismometer to detect marsquakes and a temperature / heat probe that will penetrate 16 feet (5 meters) into the ground to measure the planet’s interior temperature.

third experiment uses radio waves sent from Earth to the lander to determine its exact location. Mars orbits the sun in just under two years. During that time, the sun pushes and pulls on the planet, causing it to wobble slightly. It also changes the frequency of the radio signal reflected back to Earth from the lander. Measuring those changes yields not only the size of Mars’ iron-rich core but will help to determine whether it’s liquid, and what other elements, besides iron, may be present.

This artist’s concept depicts the InSight at work studying the interior of Mars using its 16.4-foot-long heat probe to measure the heat flow through the crust from deeper in the planet’s core. Solar cells provide power to the lander. Not to scale. NASA

By getting right to the core of things (so to speak), scientists hope to learn more about how Mars formed but also other rocky planets like the Earth, Venus, Mercury and even the moon. We might also come to better understand why Mars lost its planetary-wide magnetic field, the planet’s main defense against having its atmosphere stripped away. Mars is in part so cold and desert-like today because of its skimpy atmosphere, about 100 times thinner than Earth’s.

If all this talk of landing on Mars has got you excited to see the planet, it’s beautifully placed for viewing any clear evening this month. It now shines just a tad brighter than Vega in the Summer Triangle and stands 35° (three and a half fists) high due south around 6:30 p.m. local time. I observed the planet two nights ago up in Grand Marais, Minn. at a teaching event. It’s certainly shrunk since mid-summer, when it was closest to Earth and big and bright. But I could still clearly make out its gibbous phase, dusky dark surface markings and even a nubbin of a polar cap.

8 Responses

  1. Richard Keen

    Bob, I like the comparison with Lake Winnipeg – it puts Jezero in a interesting context.
    So, finally a Mars lander touches down at a spot we can see in a small scope! Jezero is in the NW corner of Syrtis Major, which is probably the first Martian land feature most of us have ever seen (after one or other of the polar caps). I recall spotting Syrtis Major in my 3-inch “Space Conqueror” scope at 60x at the December 1960 opposition.
    I just spent a while looking for Jezero on the Syrtis Major quadrangle,
    and found it about an inch to the lower left (on my screen) of the real dark spot in a crater at the upper right edge of the Syrtis Major dark region.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Richard,
      Thanks for pointing out that it’s near Syrtis Major, so we can get a sense of location when the time arrives. I can’t remember the first time I saw Syrtis, but it was probably back about 1966 in my 6-inch.

  2. Doug Lowe

    Hi Bob. I enjoy reading your posts. Always topical and interesting. And your Jezero crater images make me want to shout out: ‘No way are these features billions of years old, not even millions of years old, not even 100,000 thousand years old. Does everybody forget that Mars regularly has wind storms that cover the planet? Has anybody thought what caused the deluge on Earth? What if a close encounter with Mars resulted in us stealing all of their water and air a mere 10,000 years ago? Who said that our solar system has been benignly stable with all of the planets in their ‘rightful’ places from the beginning? Why are there world wide ancient accounts of great cataclysms going back to the dawn of civilization which wiped out virtually everything each time it happened? Our civilization does not want to remember these things and keeps them firmly bottled up or at least did so until recently.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Doug,
      Very happy to hear you enjoy the posts. Astronomers estimate the ages of Martian features using crater counts, no doubt how they arrived at an estimate for the age of the features inside Jezero. And remember that wind storms alternately cover and uncover features on Mars. Unfortunately, the scenario of Earth stealing Mars water by a close brush is not a plausible one. Our planets are widely separated, and such a close encounter would launch Earth and Mars into unusual orbits. If it did happen, the crust of both planets would be ripped open over a certain region, and there would be plenty of earthquakes, but Earth wouldn’t just grab Mars’s water and move on. You do make a good point about the planets not being in their places throughout the lifetime of the solar system. They likely shifted from the early days not long after their formation.

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