Spaceflight Insider

MRO data utilized for Mars 2020 landing-site selection

Artist's depiction of NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter above the Red Planet. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Artist’s depiction of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) above the Red Planet. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

As scientists and engineers from around the world have gathered this week to discuss potential landing sites for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, a key piece of hardware has been central in aiding their efforts. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) arrived at Mars in 2006 and has been capturing high-resolution imagery and data about the Martian surface in the 11 years since. This data is now being used to aid in landing-site selection efforts for the Mars 2020 rover and other future missions.

Candidate landing sites

While the meeting this week discussing potential landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover focused on eight candidate landing sites, MRO data has also been used to evaluate the landing sites for past robotic missions, including Phoenix and Curiosity. The data is even being used to evaluate some 45 potential exploration zones for future crewed missions.

“From the point of view of evaluating potential landing sites, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the perfect spacecraft for getting all the information needed,” said the workshop’s co-chair, Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “You just can’t overstate the importance of MRO for landing-site selection.”

The high-resolution of data returned by the MRO enables engineers and scientists to evaluate the safety of candidate landing sites. Stereoscopic 3-D images can reveal whether slopes are too steep and help to develop terrain models that can aid in future rover operations. MRO data can also reveal the distribution of mineral deposits that are important to achieving mission objectives. These terrain and mineral models are already being used by the Curiosity and Opportunity rover teams to help plan driving routes for those rovers by guiding them to interesting targets while staying out of potentially dangerous situations.

“Missions on the surface of Mars give you the close-up view, but what you see depends on where you land. MRO searches the globe for the best sites,” said MRO Deputy Project Scientist Leslie Tamppari of JPL.

Landing Sites Under Consideration for the Mars 2020 Rover

These eight places on Mars are potential landing sites under consideration as the destination for the Mars 2020 rover mission. Image & Caption Credit: NASA

MRO also serves as a communications relay for present surface missions in tandem with other orbiting spacecraft. Scientists and engineers plan to utilize these communications relay capabilities to support the Mars 2020 rover. This month, it will reach and surpass the milestone of 6,000 relay sessions for Mars surface missions.

While MRO data is important to characterizing potential landing sites, the orbiter has done much more than just assisting with Martian surface operations. MRO has acquired more than 224,000 images and millions of other observations of Mars during its nearly 50,000 orbits of the planet. This large volume of data returned will surpass 300 terabytes later this month, which is more data than has been returned from any past or present interplanetary mission combined. For perspective, that is more data than would be contained in four months of non-stop high-definition video.

“Whether it is looking at the surface, the subsurface or the atmosphere of the planet, MRO has viewed Mars from orbit with unprecedented spatial resolution, and that produces huge volumes of data,” said MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek of JPL.”These data are a treasure trove for the whole Mars scientific community to study as we seek to answer a broad range of questions about the evolving habitability, geology and climate of Mars.”

MRO discoveries

Among the other discoveries made possible by data returned by MRO are the following:

  • Mineral deposits that indicate a diversity of ancient water-related environments, many of which were possibly habitable.
  • There is enough carbon-dioxide ice buried under the south polar cap to nearly double the planet’s present atmosphere if released.
  • The Red Planet is still dynamic today: dust storms, moving sand dunes, avalanches, new gullies, and fresh impact craters.
  • Buried water-ice reservoirs that are remnants of Mars’ ancient climate, such as buried glaciers, have been discovered and confirmed.
  • Dark flows that appear in warm seasons on some slopes suggesting subsurface brine activity, but they are still mysterious as they hold meager amounts of water.
  • The north polar cap of Mars is geologically recent – about five million years old – and is composed of unevenly spaced layers of dust and ice that apparently correspond to cyclical changes in the Red Planet’s axial tilt.
  • Large dust storms during the southern spring and summer appear to have a pattern of three types that happen in sequence.
  • Seasonal surface changes near Mars’ polar regions appear to correlate with the freezing and thawing of carbon dioxide.
MRO observes recent impact site

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the orbiter took the four images used in this animated sequence, showing the same site over the time period from March 31, 2007, to April 2, 2012. The earliest of the four observations is the one in which the impact blast zone looks darkest. The space-rock impact that created this blast zone occurred sometime between September 2005 and February 2006, as bracketed by observations made with the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. The location is between two large volcanoes, named Ascraeus Mons and Pavonis Mons, in a dusty area of the Tharsis region of Mars. During the period from 2007 to 2012, winds blowing through the pass between the volcanoes darkened some regions and brightened others, probably by removing and depositing dust. The view covers an area about 1.0 mile (1.6 km) across, at 7° North latitude, 248° East longitude. North is toward the top. GIF & Caption Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona



Paul is currently a graduate student in Space and Planetary Sciences at the University of Akransas in Fayetteville. He grew up in the Kansas City area and developed an interest in space at a young age at the start of the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions in 2003. He began his studies in aerospace engineering before switching over to geology at Wichita State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in 2013. After working as an environmental geologist for a civil engineering firm, he began his graduate studies in 2016 and is actively working towards a PhD that will focus on the surficial processes of Mars. He also participated in a 2-week simluation at The Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in 2014 and remains involved in analogue mission studies today. Paul has been interested in science outreach and communication over the years which in the past included maintaining a personal blog on space exploration from high school through his undergraduate career and in recent years he has given talks at schools and other organizations over the topics of geology and space. He is excited to bring his experience as a geologist and scientist to the Spaceflight Insider team writing primarily on space science topics.

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