Saturday, March 25, 2017

How Do We Find The Best Landing Location On Mars?

Potential Martian landing sites for 'Mars 2020' Curiosity Rover will need to 27 terabytes of data including high resolution images gained from orbiters.

Much excitement is building toward the Mars 2020 mission for the Mars Curiosity Rover which seeks to build on the discoveries of previous Rovers (Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity).  The primary focus will be expanding our potential for past or present life beyond Earth.  Mars is a natural first suspect for other life given geological evidence for  once expansive oceans and a thick sheaf of atmospheric gases.

While the 2012 Curiosity Rover has already done yeoman service - advancing our Martian understanding from geochemistry to paleoclimate- the 2020 Rover will study the rocks and soil of the latest landing site allowing further insight into the planet's geological and astrobiological history. In addition, the 2020 mission will collect and store sets of rock and soil samples that conceivably can be sent back to Earth by a future mission. All of which elicits the question of how exactly one ascertains an optimum landing site, given the scarcity of resources available and that a wrong site could find those resources wasted.

Deciding how and where to land a Rover is no small enterprise. It generally requires a collaborative effort of the best and brightest scientists and engineers. For the 2020 mission, teams are now tasked with plowing through 27 terabytes of data, including high resolution digital images (from orbiters), then considering a multitude of different scenarios for the locations identified.  The most difficult part is determining which location scenario best fits the available data.

In the case of the Mars 2020 craft, the options for potential landing sites will also be expanded in real time based on what is called "terrain relative navigation". This is a technology that enables a craft to precisely identify where it is above the landing site.

Further insights can be obtained by going to the following links:

Referencing the work of Michael Meyer, whose primary research focus is micro-organisms living in extreme environments. He's also one of Mars 2020's leaders and architects


This refers to Beth Ehlmann whose specialties include environmental change, weathering processes on Mars, and assaying the compositional surface. She also served as a student collaborator for the Spirit and Opportunity missions.

The recent NatGeo series 'Mars' showed just how critical selection of a landing site on the Red Planet can be, especially for human colonists. However, landing site selection is also critical for any craft with astrobiology as a primary objective.. Hence, the supreme effort going into the 2020 mission.

Stay tuned!

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