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Scientists are going to face off in Los Angeles to decide where the next Mars rover lands

Published Oct 16th, 2018 5:33PM EDT

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Hey, we’re going to Mars! Well, not us specifically, but NASA is, and they really need to know where to land before they light the candle on the upcoming Mars 2020 mission. NASA has a shiny new rover in the works and it’s going to be incredibly powerful, packed with all kinds of scientific instruments and observational tools, but… where is it going to go, exactly?

That’s the question that “hundreds” of scientists are going to discuss at a conference in Los Angeles this week. The three-day event will task attendees with making a case for landing at certain spots on the Martian surface, highlighting specific points of interest that a Mars rover could study in greater detail.

“The Mars 2020 mission is tasked with not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life,” NASA writes in a blog post. “The landing site for Mars 2020 is of great interest to the planetary community because, among the rover’s new medley of science gear for surface exploration, it carries a sample system that will collect rock and soil samples and set them aside in a ‘cache’ on the surface of Mars.”

The rover itself will be capable of analyzing samples that it collects, but a future goal for NASA is being able to actually send Mars soil samples back to Earth for even more rigorous research. NASA says that whatever mission comes after Mars 2020 might be capable of returning those samples to our planet, which would be a monumental achievement.

Deciding where to land is incredibly important for a lot of obvious reasons. You have to be able to touch down in a safe place that won’t pose a risk to the hardware as it descends. Landing on a hill or near a sharp drop is obviously a very bad idea, so smooth, flat sites are favored. Elevation is another major concern, but even with these criteria there’s still countless places a rover could land.

Hopefully NASA gets some good ideas this week and can decide on a landing site soon. Wherever they choose to land, the Mars 2020 rover will be the most high-tech machine to ever touch down on Mars, and could reveal some stunning things about our friendliest neighbor.