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Sites and snapshots: Focus on Mars increasing with Mars 2020 and MarCO missions

As the space agency prepares for its next Martian mission to involve a large rover, a smaller spacecraft operated by NASA already has the Red Planet in its sites. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As the space agency prepares for its next Martian mission to involve a large rover, a smaller spacecraft operated by NASA already has the Red Planet in its sites. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Hundreds of researchers and space enthusiasts recently gathered in a hotel ballroom just north of Los Angeles, California to discuss and debate the future landing site of NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission. The three day workshop was the fourth, and final, in a series of events designed to ensure the space agency receives the broadest possible range of data and opinions from the scientific community before choosing where the rover will touch down.Building on NASA’s previous rover missions, Mars 2020 is designed to search for signs of past habitable conditions on the Red planet. It will also search for signs that the dusty planet once supported microorganisms.

Scientists are hyper-interested in the landing site chosen as the one ton rover as Mars 2020 comes equipped with a sample system designed to collect rock and soil samples. If everything goes as advertised some samples will be set aside at points along the rover’s path. These samples might be ferried back to Earth some day by a vehicle that would achieve what has never been done before – travel to and from the surface of Mars. Before this can occur, however, it has to be decided where Mars 2020 will land.

“The Mars 2020 landing site could set the stage for Mars exploration for the next decade,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate via an agency-issued release. “I’m looking forward to the spirited debate and critical input from the science and engineering community. Once returned to Earth, these samples will likely become the most analyzed soil samples in history, as they promise to address some very tantalizing questions driving NASA’s Science program.”

Artist's depiction of the Mars 2020 rover on the surface of the Red Planet image credit NASA JPL Caltech

The chances of finding microbial life on the Martian surface increase by the selection of the landing site. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, Michael Myer, provided the workshops’ opening remarks which were held from October 16-18. While deciding which of the four possible landing sites will be selected is critical to the mission, it isn’t the only aspect that needs to be reviewed and considered. Project status, constraints placed on engineering and other elements were debated. The workshop is just the latest milestone in preparing the robotic geologist for its flight atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket less than two years from now.

“We have been doing these workshops in support of 2020 landing site selection since 2014,” said Matt Golombek, co-chair of the Mars Landing Site Steering Committee from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “At our first workshop, we started with about 30 candidate landing sites, and after additional orbital imaging and a second landing site workshop, we had a recommendation of eight sites to move forward for further evaluation. There were so many great locations to choose from, the whittling-down process was tough. This time around, with four finalists, it promises to be even more difficult. Each site has its own intriguing science potential and knowledgeable advocates.”

Proponents of each of the four potential landing sites each took their turn at the podium, presenting and defending their case. This was one more location than was anticipated following the conclusion of the third workshop in 2017. After which, three sites were recommended for consideration: Colombia Hills, Jezero Crater and Northeast Sytis.

“At the end of the workshop in February of 2017, there were only three sites on our radar as potential Mars 2020 landing locations,” said Ken Farley, project scientist of Mars 2020 at JPL. “But in the ensuing months, a proposal came forward for a landing site that is in between Jezero and Northeast Syrtis. Our goal is to get to the right site that provides the maximum science for Mars 2020, and this new site – dubbed ‘Midway’ – was viewed as worthy of being included in the discussions.”

On the last day of the workshop participants went over the positives and negatives of each site. The results of these discussions will be given to the team working on the Mars 2020 Project. They in turn will incorporate them into a recommendation to NASA Headquarters. At this point the possible locations will be narrowed down to one and a final decision will will have been made. If everything goes according to schedule, the announcement of the “winner” should be made at the close of 2018.

“I have attended all the workshops so far, and none have disappointed when it comes to intelligent advocation and lively debate,” Farley said. “But this is what science is all about – the cogent and respectable exchange of ideas. The passion of the participants shows just how much they care about Mars exploration. They know they are playing a key role in the process, and they know how important the landing site for Mars 2020 will be.”

MarCO-B made history earlier this month by being the first CubeSat to capture a photo of Mars. The tiny spacecraft snapped this image on Oct. 2. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MarCO-B made history earlier this month by being the first CubeSat to capture a photo of Mars. The tiny spacecraft snapped this image on Oct. 2. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Exploration of Mars appears to be increasing with an element of another NASA mission making history earlier this month. Riding along with NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander are the twin Mars Cube One CubeSats. MarCO-A and MarCO-B. These tiny vehicles won’t land with InSight on Mars, rather they were sent on a flyby of the planet.

The reason why they were sent as a pair, was to increase the chances of success. At least in one regard, MarCO has already achieved this.

MarCO-B, dubbed “Wall-E”, has managed to stand out from its sibling by snapping its first image of InSight’s destination on October 2 of this year (2018). The feat was historic in that it marked the first time a CubeSat had taken a picture of Mars so close to the planet.

The snapshot was not a frivolous use of the mission’s equipment. Instead, it was a test exposure of MarCO-B’s wide-angle camera settings. As the image shows, the test worked. The MarCO team hopes to build upon this accomplishment in the coming days with more images planned. The photo was taken 8 million miles (12.8 million kilometers) from the mission’s destination.

“We’ve been waiting six months to get to Mars,” said Cody Colley, MarCO’s mission manager at JPL. “The cruise phase of the mission is always difficult, so you take all the small wins when they come. Finally seeing the planet is definitely a big win for the team.”

At present, InSight is slated to touch down on the Elysium Planitia region of Mars on November 26. The MarCO CubeSats are tasked with displaying their communications capabilities. 

With on-going missions such as that of the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, spacecraft on their way to Mars as well as those that are in development, the study of the flash-frozen world continues. As has been noted on Phys.Org and elsewhere, recent studies have suggested that salty water either beneath or at the planet’s surface might have enough dissolved oxygen to support simple forms of life such as the microbes Mars 2020 will be looking for and perhaps even more complex organisms.

Video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech






Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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