June 16, 2010

New Mars Rover Destination Being Determined

NASA scientists are scouting out four potential stomping grounds for a new rover, as the Phoenix Mars lander was officially declared dead in late May.

The new Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is set for launch in November 2011.  The new robot lab, known as Curiosity, is expected to determine whether Mars is or was ever habitable to microbial life.

"We will either land in Disneyland or in the parking lot next to Disneyland," said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., echoing the project's mission manager.

After weighing the pros and con of each, NASA has narrowed its 60 choices for potential landing spots on Mars down to four:  Mawrth Vallis, Gale crater, Holden crater and Eberswalde crater.

"These are the best places you could possibly imagine you would want to go, and for the first time, you can actually land near them and get to them," said Matthew Golombek of JPL, co-chair of the Curiosity rover landing site steering committee.

The new rover is the first ever built to use a guided entry, meaning it will steer itself through the Martian atmosphere like a guided missile.  The design is made to hit a target just over 15 miles long and 12 miles wide.

"It opens up a lot more possibilities of squeezing the ellipse within the terrain and closer to features of interest," Vasavada told Space.com. After landing, Curiosity will also be able to drive up to 20 kilometers to reach targets, or "go-to" sites.

Curiosity is also designed to be on more elevated terrain, which opens up more opportunities for the exploration of the red planet.  The rover is also designed to withstand severe cold temperatures.

The Mawrth Vallis and Gale crater are the riskier spots to land from the perspective of geological understanding.  However, they are considered more rewarding.

Mawrth Vallis is one of the oldest valleys on Mars, forming about 3.7 billion years ago.  It contains the best-exposed phyllosilicates on Mars.

MRO's CRISM instrument provides images that scientists have identified as multiple layers of phyllosilicates made of different materials.

"It suggests a change in environment, a change in chemistry" when Mars was warmer and wetter, said Golombek. "All of that is incredibly interesting to go look at."

What Mawrth Vallis lacks is an understanding of how the minerals got there, Vasavada explained. "That's something we could discover by putting a rover there and driving around, [but] we would like to know that before."

Gale, a 90-mile wide crater near the bottom of Elysium Plantia, holds a similar situation as well.

If Curiosity landed at Gale, it might be able to survey a billion years of Mars history, Vasavada said.

Having these broader landing possibilities allows scientists about half the planet to choose from, which is triple the area open to Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

NASA's youngest Mars probe, "Spirit," was finally declared dead in May after scientists spent over a year trying to get the rover unstuck.


Image Caption: An artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (left) serves to compare it with Spirit, one of NASA's twin Mars Exploration Rovers. Mars Science Laboratory is in development for a launch opportunity in 2009, a landing on Mars in 2010 and investigation of that planet's past or present ability to sustain microbial life. The images of Spirit and the more advanced rover are both superimposed by special effects on a scene from Mars' "Columbia Hills," photographed by Spirit's panoramic camera on April 13, 2005, and presented here in false color. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


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