Of all the places to land on Mars, where in the world should twin rovers go? This question has been on the front burner of discussion with Mars scientists who have the arduous task of selecting a site where it is safe to land and yet is rich in rocks, layered terrain and other geologic features that will beckon a host of scientific inquiries and discoveries for the Mars Exploration Rover mission scheduled to launch in 2003.
Mars scientists all agree on one thing: the search is on for landing sites where water was once present on the surface of Mars. The science instruments on the rovers are all geared toward understaning if the planet was warmer and wetter in the past, and for how long. Answering these questions is important to understanding how Earth and Mars have differed in climate and geology throughout their development. Since water is key to living organisms, they also address the potential that life may have developed on Mars long ago.
Leading the Charge
As more than a hundred scientists gathered in study teams and burned the midnight oil over six months of intense calculations, Dr. Matt Golombek has overseen a lively but collegial process that has taken place.
As JPL's Mars Exploration Landing Site scientist, he looks after the selection process, carefully weighing the choices at hand. Scientists and engineers working with him have painstakingly narrowed the best places to land from 185 to four, and are now focused on selecting the final two.
"We want to go to sites with terrains that will challenge our minds but not the safety of the rovers," said Golombek, who was also project scientist on the Mars Pathfinder mission and selected its landing site.
Plainly speaking, he said, the science group has ruled out areas that are flat and safe but boring, and have homed in on sites that appear flat, safe and interesting. The site selection process is a convergence between engineers who know the capabilities and limitations of the machines they are sending to Mars, and scientists who can determine the scientific worth of the areas accessible to the spacecraft. Everyone, he said, is working toward that goal.