The Mars 2020 spacecraft will investigate an intriguing type of mineral deposit known to produce fossils on Earth.
And when you think of fossils, you probably imagine T. rex skulls and sauropod femurs. NASA’s Mars 2020 spacecraft will be searching for fossils on Mars, but not those fossils.
NASA highlighted a new study in the magazine Icarus this week pointing out some fascinating formations around the inner edge of the Jezero Crater, the spacecraft’s planned landing site. The agency compares these concentrated carbonate mineral deposits to a tub ring around what was once a lake 3.5 billion years ago.
On Earth, carbonates help form structures that are tough enough to survive in fossil form for billions of years, including seashells, corals, and some stromatolites – rocks formed on this planet by ancient microbial life along ancient shorelines, where sunlight and water were abundant.
NASA does not expect to find sea shells, but the spacecraft will closely examine the stromatolites. Scientists would be thrilled to discover signs of past microbial life on the currently inhospitable planet. The Jeep’s investigation of carbonate deposits may also tell us more about how Mars made the transition from an aqueous to an arid place.
The probe jeep Mars 2020 is developing at NASA with a planned release mid-next year. If it stays on schedule, the spacecraft will reach the crater in February 2021.
Scientists do not know whether carbonates formed in the ancient lake or could have been deposited previously. We will have to wait to find out more. It will be a milestone worth waiting for.