Planetary Sciences AGU News

How on Earth to Decide Where on Mars to Land?

The Public Lecture at AGU's 2016 Fall Meeting will feature three experts—including one still in high school—to discuss landing site selection for the Mars 2020 rover.


Before NASA’s next robotic explorer of the Red Planet can collect geological samples, complete measurements, and take “selfies” like its predecessor Curiosity, the Mars 2020 rover has to successfully land. Deciding on a landing spot for rovers or humans is no trivial task. Three experts—an astrobiologist, a geomorphologist, and a high school student talented in planetary science—will discuss the process behind selecting a landing site during the Public Lecture at this year’s AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif.

“The search for the best landing site is an exciting science discussion about Mars—what we know, what we think we know, and what we really don’t know,” according to astrobiologist and lead scientist of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Michael Meyer, who will speak first in the Sunday, 11 December, panel.

The Mars 2020 mission seeks to build on discoveries made by previous rovers (Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity) by expanding our understanding of the potential for past or present life beyond Earth. Although we think of Mars as a cold, red-toned rockscape with a razor-thin atmosphere, the planet once harbored expansive oceans and a thick sheath of atmospheric gases. The Curiosity rover, one of NASA’s flagship missions, which landed in August 2012, has advanced our understanding of Mars in areas ranging from geochemistry to paleoclimate and has collected images on scales from micrometers to kilometers. The 2020 rover will study the rocks and soil of the new landing site and gain further insights into the planet’s geological and astrobiological history. In addition, Mars 2020 will collect and store on the surface of Mars a set of soil and rock samples that could be picked up and returned to Earth by a future mission.

February 2021 marks the scheduled landing date for the new rover, which will spend at least one Mars year (two Earth years) on the Red Planet. Deciding where and how the rover will land rests with a collaborative team of the best and brightest engineers and scientists. Tasked with sorting through 27 terabytes of data, the team uses high-resolution images gained from orbiters to identify specific minerals in the terrain and then must patiently wade through a multitude of scenarios. Meyer noted that an improved ability of the Mars 2020 spacecraft to precisely identify where it is above the Martian surface, called “terrain relative navigation,” will expand the pool of potential landing sites, giving the team “even more spectacular places to compare” and leading to “the hard part, deciding on the one place on Mars to explore.”

Each of the three public lecture speakers came to a spot on the upcoming panel via a unique trajectory, but all are united by their fascination with Mars. Their backgrounds speak to the power of collaborative work and diverse teams. These three experts involved in planning the Mars 2020 mission (click here to learn more) will provide a lively discussion and question and answer session:

  • Michael Meyer does research primarily on microorganisms living in extreme environments. As one of the Mars 2020 mission’s architects and leaders, he will provide key insights about the mission.
  • Bethany Ehlmann’s specialties include sorting out the compositional surface, environmental change, and weathering processes on the Red Planet. She has lent her expertise to the exploration of Mars since she first served as a student scientist collaborator for the Spirit and Opportunity missions. She said that when running a Mars rover mission from Earth, the mission team shares “a strange, slightly jet-lagged experience of living on Mars time together.”
  • Alex Longo, a rising junior at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, N.C., became fascinated with planetary science before he could read, leading him to this unique role for a high schooler. Longo notes the importance of the Spirit rover, which “transformed Mars from a distant place I was taught about in a book to a dynamic place that I could visit someday,” in his path. He participates in numerous NASA planetary activities and presented at landing site selection conferences in 2014 and 2015 alongside NASA scientists.

Save the date—Sunday, 11 December 2016, from noon to 1:00 p.m., Pacific Standard Time—to learn more at AGU’s Public Lecture about what leads up to the event that Meyer describes as the “existential moment” of landing a rover on Mars.

This annual public talk is free, family friendly, and geared toward nonscientists. No reservation is required. Each year, the Public Lecture strives to connect AGU members with the public—in this case, scientists at Fall Meeting with local San Francisco Bay Area residents.

Immediately following the lecture, Exploration Station, a free event lasting until 5:00 p.m., will provide a rich assortment of hands-on science activities for families and kids of all ages. For more information on both of these events, visit AGU’s education programs website.

—Claire Wilson, Intern, Education and Public Outreach, AGU; e-mail: [email protected]

Citation: Wilson, C. (2016), How on Earth to decide where on Mars to land?, Eos, 97, Published on 25 May 2016.
Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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