NASA Whittles Down List of Next Mars Landing Sites
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory plans to launch in 2009. The rover is to be powered by nuclear generator (not shown) and will have extensive mobility across the red planet. Image
Credit: NASA/JPL/Corby Waste

Four intriguing places on Mars have risen to the final round as NASA selects a landing site for its next Mars mission, the Mars Science Laboratory.

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project leaders at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., chose the four this month, after seeking input from international Mars experts and from engineers working on the landing system and rover capabilities to whittle down the initial list of more than 30 sites.

The sites, alphabetically, are: Eberswalde, where an ancient river deposited a delta in a possible lake; Gale, with a mountain of stacked layers including clays and sulfates; Holden, a crater containing alluvial fans, flood deposits, possible lake beds and clay-rich deposits; and Mawrth, which shows exposed layers containing at least two types of clay.

Gale is near the equator, Eberswalde and Holden are farther south, and Mawrth is in the north.

"All four of these sites would be great places to use our roving laboratory to study the processes and history of early Martian environments and whether any of these environments were capable of supporting microbial life and its preservation as biosignatures," said MSL project scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech.

The mission's capabilities for landing more precisely than ever before and for generating electricity without reliance on sunshine have made landing sites eligible that would not have been acceptable for past Mars missions. During the past two years, multiple observations of dozens of candidate sites by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have augmented data from earlier orbiters for evaluating sites' scientific attractions and engineering risks.

JPL is assembling and testing the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft for launch in fall 2009. The mission plan calls for the rover to spend a full Mars year (23 months) examining the environment with a diverse payload of tools.

After evaluating additional Mars orbiter observations of the four sites, NASA will hold a fourth science workshop about the candidates in the spring and plans to choose a final site next summer.

One site, Gale, had been a favorite of scientists considering 2004 landing sites for NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but was ruled out as too hazardous for the capabilities of those spacecraft.

"Landing on Mars always is a risky balance between science and engineering. The safest sites are flat, but the spectacular geology is generally where there are ups and downs, such as hills and canyons. That's why we have engineered this spacecraft to make more sites qualify as safe," said JPL's Michael Watkins, mission manager for MSL.

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