Europe wants to prove its mettle in the race to Mars and the European Space Agency has identified two possible landing sites near the equator for its ExoMars rover. The plan is set to launch in 2020 and the sites are Oxia Planum and Mawrth Vallis. An expert panel at Leicester University took this decision. The rover will blast off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan between July 25 and August 13, 2020, and arrive at its destination on March 19, 2021.

BBC reports that experts believe Oxia is rich in natural resources because the topography reveals a landscape where rocks might have been interacting with water.

The second site is Mawrth Vallis, which is near Oxia. The ExoMars vehicle will be equipped to drill to a depth of around 2m (6.5 feet approximately) and explore the surroundings for signs of life forms. The heads of the European and Russian space agencies will take the final decision and it appears Oxia is the favorite.

Choice of ExoMars landing site was difficult

Specialists in Mars geology met in Leicester to identify a location where the landing would be smooth.

An earlier effort in 2016 failed as the vehicle crashed into the ground at a speed of over 300km/h. Experts had been discussing the issue for more than four years, and the sites that are now identified could yield positive results. That is the opinion of the working group.

Oxia lies about 18 degrees north of the equator. This will ensure availability of sunlight throughout the year to power the solar panels of the ExoMars rover.

Aerial photographs of the area tend to suggest an abundance of clay-like material. This could be a pointer to the presence of water. Researchers from the European Space Agency have noticed evidence of lakes at Oxia, apart from rivers and deltas. They feel that with the life-detecting technologies on ExoMars, it might unearth traces of biological activity in the sediments.

Airbus is assembling the rover at its UK manufacturing center in Stevenage.

Positives of the proposed ExoMars lading sites

The Oxia Planum and Mawrth Vallis are two sites tentatively selected for the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars rover. Scientists say these indicate that Mars had a watery past. Therefore, the European Space Agency wants ExoMars to discover “biosignatures.” Microorganisms could have thrived in the ancient water-rich environments.

According to Daily Mail UK, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter is already engaged in trying to zero in on signs of biological activity in the atmosphere of the red planet. The Mars rover is undergoing tests to confirm serviceability of its systems. Once it lands on Mars, it will begin to collect data and transmit them back to Earth through the Trace Gas Orbiter.