A NASA spacecraft will seek signs that there was once life on Mars by analyzing the rocks in a long-dried-up lakebed and delta, two geographical features that could preserve evidence of ancient organisms, the US space agency said on Monday.
For the past five years, NASA has been discussing what the best landing site would be for the probe, which will be sent into space in July 2020.
After studying more than 70 different sites on Mars, NASA announced on Monday that the spacecraft - specially designed to move about on the planet's surface - would be sent to a crater 45 kilometers (28 miles) in diameter named Jezero, where it will collect samples of rocks and soil.
At a telephone conference, scientist Ken Farley, who works for the Mars 2020 project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said that the crater is the ancient site of a river, and thus there could be fossilized signs of organic molecules and microbes there.
"The delta is a good place for evidence of life to be deposited and then preserved for the billions of years that have elapsed since this lake was present," Farley told reporters.
In addition, the ancient lake, which in the distant past was 250 meters (about 800 feet) deep, has five different kinds of rocks ranging from clays and carbonate rocks that could preserve signs of organisms to volcanic rocks that could provide clues about the Red Planet's volcanic evolution.
The aim, Farley said, is to first determine what the planet's environment was like in the past and then try to understand what kind of life could have developed there.
The results of earlier space missions show that Mars was not always a desert planet, but rather it had significant volcanic activity - as its many craters show - and even harbored liquid water on its surface, meaning that it could have had an atmosphere suitable for life.