Looking at Landing Sites for the Mars Science Laboratory
Title: Looking at Landing Sites for the Mars Science Laboratory
Rich Zurek: The prime responsibility of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been to search out new landing sites for future missions. Both to find places that are scientifically interesting on the planet, that have a great potential for future discovery once we land there, but also to make sure and to certify that we’ll be able to land there safely. Next up is the Mars Science Laboratory, to be launched in 2011. It will set down on the planet in 2012. Over 3 dozens sites have been looked at intensively by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and from that the final landing sites have emerged.
In the northern hemisphere of Mars, the Mawrth Vallis area is important because of the diversity of the mineral signatures that you see. The great channel that cuts across this was carved by water. But even the highlands here were affected by water. In the craters that are there, we see different mineral signatures in the different layers, indicating the episodic activity of water at the planet, or the mixing of soils by impacts in the early history of Mars.
In the southern hemisphere of Mars, Holden Crater, 60 miles across, is very interesting because there is a channel that goes into the crater. And here you’re looking at the front of that, the delta, indicating that water once flowed into the crater, ponding as an inland sea or lake, and then breached the far wall and ran out, leaving layers. In those layers we expect to find evidence of the past chemistry, the action of water – how long it was there. They may also have the potential to have preserved biosignatures, that is, evidence of past life, if life had ever developed on the planet and flourished in this area.
The outstanding characteristic of Eberswalde Crater, the thing that calls out to land in this area, is that it has a delta formation, like that of the Mississippi River, in which it’s obvious that material has flowed, in a channel, out of the highlands down into this crater and formed a delta formation, highly structured and layered, meaning that there were many episodes of water flowing into the crater. Those layers could be preserving not only the history of this area as it formed over time on Mars, and the activity of water on its surface, but it’s the kind of formation that could also preserve evidence of past life, if that life had developed on the planet.
Gale Crater in the southern hemisphere of Mars near the Equator is an attractive landing site because it’s a very deep crater, more than 3 miles deep. And yet at one time it must have been completely filled, because its central mound actually extends above the crater rim today. Evident in here are many different kinds of minerals: sulfates, sediments, clay materials that indicated the action of water. And, because of that action of water, the possibility that it may have preserved evidence of past life.
Title: Images are from the HiRISE instrument onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Title: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology