The NASA spacecraft InSight is due to land on Mars Monday after a journey of about 300 million miles. The spacecraft’s mission is to spend 24 months exploring the planet’s deep interior in order to try to understand how the planet formed. Of course the event is also an occasion to, yet again, wonder about the possibility of life on the red planet, especially because that will be the mission of the Mars Rover, which launches in 2020.
NASA announced earlier this month that it will land the rover on Mars’ Jezero Crater, a location Tim Goudge, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, says is ideal. He says the crater formed over 3.5 billion years ago when a meteorite hit the planet.
“It’s a site that I’ve been working on for the past several years,” Goudge says. “We think what’s most exciting about it is it once held a lake and has a large deposit that’s like a river delta.”
Goudge says water once flowed on Mars’ surface, and there is water in its polar ice caps.
“Liquid water is one of the major requirements for life as we know it, and so, if there was liquid water, which we really think there was, it’s a good chance to go look for whether life might have evolved if the conditions were right,” Goudge says.
Goudge says geologists use their knowledge about Earth’s geology and its past in order to study the possibility of life on Mars. Early life on Earth consisted of single-cell organisms, so Goudge says that’s what scientists will look for with the Mars Rover. He says they’ll likely also look for evidence of living organisms preserved in rock, and some of that analysis will take place once the rover brings samples back to Earth.
“That’s one of the really exciting bits of this mission, that it’s the first in a series of missions to hopefully return samples to Earth, where we can subject them to any number of really detailed analytic capabilities in labs here,” Goudge says.
Written by Alexia Puente.