I'm a postdoctoral scholar studying planetary geology in the Planetary Sciences Group at UCF.
I'm interested in planetary materials, including their early evolution in the solar system, re-creating their exotic properties in the lab, and extracting them sustainably as space resources.
1. Carbonaceous muds (Recent abstract).
2. Martian clay formation and noble gas sequestration in the pre-Noachian (Recent publication).
3. High fidelity regolith simulants (Recent publication).
Here's some thoughts and review after presenting at the 3rd workshop to choose the landing site for the NASA Mars 2020 rover.
What's the bottom line coming out of the workshop?
Eight sites went in, and three (Jezero Crater, Northeast Syrtis, Columbia Hills) came out. Holden Crater was excoriated on every metric imaginable. The four other sites (Nili Fossae, Mawrth Valles, Southwest Melas and Eberswalde) didn't make the cut and quietly faded from consideration.
What's the deal with Columbia Hills?
There is universal appeal for Jezero Crater and high regard for Northeast Syrtis, but Columbia Hills was tepidly kept on to be “further developed and tested”. The Mars 2020 project's internal Landing Site Working Group strongly dislikes this site and recommended it be dropped immediately. Voting scores at the workshop weren't high enough to help overcome this, but Columbia Hills scored strongly on the Returned Sample Science Board's review and is kept alive by the potential link between digitate silica sinter deposits and similar biologically mediated structures found on Earth.
What does further development and testing entail?
Unclear. All the cards for Columbia Hills were laid out on the table at the workshop, and the Spirit rover that originally found the silica deposits is no longer functioning. It isn't obvious what kind of new information could be produced in the coming months, although this further evaluation may focus on whether or not the project believes they can actually cache samples of the fragile sinter deposits with the M2020 coring system.
Are the three finalist sites official?
No, the sites constitute the project's short list, but NASA HQ does not necessarily have to accept this list.
Could any of these sites be dropped?
Yes. Two of the top three sites (Jezero and Northeast Syrtis) require terrain-relative navigation (TRN), a descent and landing technology that has been approved for M2020 but could be descoped if the project runs into budgetary issues or tight deadlines. No TRN means no Jezero or Northeast Syrtis. Columbia Hills will be dropped if the project believes it cannot adequately cache the sinter deposits.
Could other sites be added back in?
What would it take for that to happen?
If TRN is descoped, the short list will have to be re-populated by sites accessible without TRN. New science discoveries could also bring in other sites: this could include complex organic molecules or stromatolite-type structures being discovered by the Curiosity rover at Gale Crater, or methane plumes being detected by ESA's Trace Gas Orbiter with a distinct, highly localized source. Or my dark horse favorite, macro-scale biosignatures discovered by the black and white camera on the InSight lander, purposefully sent to the most boring place on Mars we could find.
So then what is the most likely landing site for Mars 2020?
If TRN is not descoped, the rover will almost certainly land in Jezero Crater.