Geneseo professor proposes Mars landing site

Assistant professor of geological sciences Nicholas Warner and his research team proposed a landing site for the Mars rover mission set to take place in 2020. The mission will investigate whether there was once life on Mars. (Annalee Bainnson/Assoc. Photo Editor)

Geneseo assistant professor of geological sciences Nicholas Warner and two other members of his research team proposed a landing site for the next Mars rover NASA mission in 2020 on Feb. 10 and helped to determine the location of the landing site.

Warner and his team’s proposed landing site—called the Eberswalde Delta—was voted the third best landing site out of a total of eight sites by fellow members of the conference. The team chose the Eberswalde Delta because there is evidence that this area originally consisted of a river and a lake, which could have been home to forms of life such as bacteria. If this bacteria was present, it may be preserved in the sediments, according to Warner.

When members of the internal NASA landing site working group and the instrument team selected the final three landing sites to move on to the last stage of evaluations, Warner and his team were not included.

Individuals presented on these sites on a voluntary basis, according to a phone interview with professor at Western Washington University and fellow team member Melissa Rice. During the meetings, presenters explained the scientific merits of the landing site, Warner said.

“We had scientists who have been studying their favorite spot on Mars for decades, and we also had a high school student who just felt strongly about one particular site and everybody was given time to speak,” Rice said. “In a way, it was kind of like a town hall meeting for Mars.”

The three landing sites that have advanced to the final stage of evaluations are the Columbia Hills, Northeast Syrtis Major and the Jezero Crater. Warner said that the criteria used to evaluate the three final landing sites for the Mars rover included whether there are a variety of rocks present in these sites, whether there are signs of potential life and whether there are significant non-biological aspects to investigate, such as the site’s climate and history. 

In addition, NASA evaluated the potential challenges present in these regions that could impact the rover, such as limited driving distance and temperature extremes. Part of the reason the Eberswalde Delta did not advance to the final stage was due to NASA’s concerns about the area’s swings in temperature, according to Warner.

NASA will conduct missions in the future to obtain the samples that will be collected in the Mars 2020 mission, Warner said. 

“This is something that’s brand new about this rover,” Warner said. “It’s not just going to look for life, it’s going to take little drill samples and put them in a container for 10-20 years from now when another mission will come and return them.”  

Geneseo students have worked on a variety of projects similar to Warner’s research, Warner said. Currently, he has a student who is working on mapping for the Insight mission, which will travel to Mars in 2018. 

In addition, other students have helped with Warner’s presentation of the Eberswalde Delta, and Warner also has students propose projects in his classes in which they themselves suggest a particular landing site to send a mission. 

Warner believes these missions engage members of the public due to their objectives to search for life on other planets.

“The ultimate goal is really to find evidence that life was able to evolve on another planet independent of Earth,” Warner said. “So that’s the critical driving question for the Mars program.”

Associate news editor Malachy Dempsey contributed reporting to this article.