NASA will use Mars 2020 rover to look for tiny fossils in hunt for life

NASA will use the suite of instruments on the Mars 2020 rover to hunt for microscopic fossils, the space agency has announced. Experts have selected an ideal location at the Red Planet's Jezero Crater where the fossils — if they exist — may be located. The hunt is part of NASA's mission to determine whether life ever existed on Mars.

Assuming everything goes according to plan, the Mars 2020 rover will land on the Red Planet in mid-February 2021, kicking off the space agency's latest exploration of the planet. The rover packs a suite of new instruments that bring additional capabilities to NASA's effort, enabling the rover to focus on astrobiology and look for signs of microbial life in the planet's ancient past.

As detailed in a study published earlier today, Mars' Jezero Crater features an inner rim full of carbonates, a type of mineral deposit. These carbonates — at least on Earth — are part of seashells and other objects that can end up fossilized, after which point they survive for billions of years.

Of particular interest to NASA are stromatolites, which are rocks found on Earth that were created during its ancient period by microbial life. It is possible that similar structures may be found in the Jezero Crater's shoreline, which surrounds the area that was once an ancient lake before all of Mars' surface water disappeared.

Some samples collected from these regions may be returned to Earth for analysis by future missions, according to NASA. As well, these same deposits will help shed light on the transition that took place from Mars' time as a planet with water to the dusty desert we know it as today. The rover will spend two years studying the crater's floor and the surrounding delta region.