Scientists finally know where they're sending the new Mars Rover

The ExoMars rover will land on a clay-rich plain, drilling into the Martian surface to hunt for signs of life.

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Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
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The ExoMars rover might not know its name, but it almost certainly knows where it will be touching down when it reaches the surface of Mars in 2020. 

Oxia Planum, a flat plain rich in iron-magnesium clays, is first preference as the mission's landing site after the fifth and final meeting of the Landing Site Selection Working Group (LSSWG) in Leicester, UK, reports the BBC.

Oxia Planum has long been in discussion as the landing site of choice because it offers a tantalizing opportunity to search for signs of life due to its geological composition and altitude. The first meeting of the expert panel in 2014 concluded it "exhibits fewer problems than any of the other sites." The clay-rich surface suggests that water once flowed through the location -- and where there is water, there may be biosignatures that suggest life once existed there. The location provides the mission with the best chance of safely landing the rover while still allowing it to meet its scientific goals. 

However, a second site, Mawrth Vallis, is still in contention for the ExoMars landing site, though it appears Oxia Planum will get the nod because it provides a slightly safer option, with few challenging topographical challenges or slopes. Mawrth Vallis was one of the sites considered for NASA's Curiosity mission and their Mars 2020 mission because, like Oxia Planum, it is rich in clay minerals.


The location of Oxia Planum (green) and Mawrth Vallis (blue, top) on the Martian surface.


The final decision on where to land the rover will be decided approximately a year out from launch.

Once the ExoMars rover touches down and rolls off its lander, its suite of instruments will allow it to visualize and analyze the Martian soil. It will be able to drill up to a maximum of 2 meters into the ground and contains spectrometers and analyzers targeting biomarkers allowing researchers to understand the origins and evolution of life on Mars, should they find it.

The ExoMars program, a collaboration between Russian space agency Roscosmos and the ESA, was established to learn more about the red planet, including searching for signs of life. It features two distinct missions. The first part took place in March 2016, sending the Trace Gas Orbiter into Martian orbit and landing an experimental module, known as Schiaparelli, on Mars soil. The latter was scheduled to land on Mars in October 2016, but a software glitch caused the module to crash land.

Here's hoping the as-yet-unnamed rover makes it through the tricky landing.

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