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Where Should Humans Land on Mars? Workshop to Discuss Possibilities

Posted by Jason Davis

27-10-2015 10:30 CDT

Topics: human spaceflight, Mars

This week in Houston, Texas, scientists are gathering to discuss where humans should first land and explore on the surface of Mars.

The landing won’t happen anytime soon—NASA is at least two decades away from sending astronauts to another planet. But the space agency wants to get the selection process started now, while some of its powerful imaging spacecraft like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter are still healthy.

There are already more than 40 proposed places on Mars where astronauts could land, set up habitats and explore. From Tuesday through Friday, scientists will present these spots—known as exploration zones—at the First Human Landing Sites/Exploration Zones on Mars Workshop. The workshop takes place at the Lunar and Planetary Institute near NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Potential humans to Mars landing and exploration zones

NASA / Lindsay Hays

Potential humans to Mars landing and exploration zones
More than 40 proposed human landing and exploration zones are shown on this Mars elevation map.

Early Martian explorers are expected to be mobile and have the capability of traveling within a 100-kilometer radius of the landing and habitat site. NASA has defined a rigorous set of requirements for potential exploration zones. There are scientific demands, such as searching for past and present life, conducting atmospheric and geological science, and answering questions about Mars’ history. Wish lists are defined all the way down to the types of rock available on the surface, such as "access to Noachian or pre-Noachian bedrock units," and "access to outcrops with remnant magnetization."

Scientists are also being asked to consider how easily astronauts can prospect for water, manipulate the soil for landing pads and roads, and possibly produce food. NASA plans to decide in the next decade how reliant early explorers will be on in-situ resource utilization.

There are also engineering constraints. NASA wants sites to have blast zones for multiple cargo and crew landings, as well as crew liftoffs. All landing areas must be within 50 degrees latitude of the Martian equator, and no greater or less than two kilometers in altitude from the planet’s average zero-elevation surface level.

Humans on Mars landing zone constraints

NASA

Humans on Mars landing zone constraints

Fans of "The Martian" will be pleased to know several proposed exploration zones are close to Mark Watney’s fictional journey across the surface:

Mawrth Vallis: Watney reaches this location on his way to Schiaparelli Crater.

McLaughlin Crater: This crater is just southwest of the proposed Mawrth Vallis exploration zone, and according to at least one description, part of Mawrth Vallis itself.

Meridiani Planum: After being detained by a dust storm near Marth Crater, Watney heads south to Meridiani Planum, where he turns directly east for the Mars Ascent Vehicle at Schiaparelli crater. He briefly notes that he is close to NASA’s Opportunity rover.

Firsoff Crater: This crater is west of the proposed Meridiani Planum exploration zone, and part of Meridiani Planum itself.

Sinus Meridiani: Also part of Meridiani Planum, Sinus Meridiani is south-southwest of the proposed Meridiani Planum exploration zone.

Southern Meridiani: Southwest of the proposed Meridiani Planum exploration zone, Southern Meridiani is northwest from the Opportunity rover. This was also a proposed Curiosity landing site.

Valles Marineris Mouth: Watney is due east of this exploration zone when he retrieves the Pathfinder spacecraft and Sojourner rover.

 
See other posts from October 2015

 

Or read more blog entries about: human spaceflight, Mars

Comments:

Mewo : 10/27/2015 10:40 CDT

Valles Marineris. Imagine the views!

Red: 10/27/2015 04:47 CDT

Likewise for Valles Marineris as a first choice, and indeed, the views! For second and third choice, I'd say Gusev and then Jezero Craters. Gusev apparently was both a lake and part of a volcanic system to the north and Jezero is already considered a prime choice for the 2020 rover. Also they're respectively close to Spirit and Beagle 2 respectively.

Stephen: 10/28/2015 12:23 CDT

@Mewo & Red Is the point of human beings travelling to Mars to be for the scenic views or for the science? Note that NASA did not send astronauts to a place on the Moon with nice views until Apollo 15, so assigning the scenery as an factor in choosing the landing site for the first or even second mission to Mars seems a trifle premature. As for a return to Gusev while I personally wouldn't mind going there--the astronauts could pay Spirit a visit the same way Apollo 12 paid a visit to Surveyor 3--I suspect NASA and the science community would prefer a place where the lakebed wasn't buried beneath who-knows-how-many feet of lava. After all, their main goal will likely be the search for Martian life, whether extant or extinct, in much the same way as the search for life has dominated the design and choice of destinations for the unmanned lander missions. Martian geology will probably play second fiddle, at least for the first mission.

Red: 10/28/2015 03:38 CDT

Stephen, unlike Apollo it isn't quite as much a matter of racing a rival nation. This time around, NASA is nitpicking more thoroughly in part due to a wealth of data we've acquired since the Mariner flybys. Btw, an even larger surprise than Gusev is the fact Viking 1's site is on the list too! If you want a piece of hardware to revisit Surveyor-style...nothing beats a 40-year-old legend.

Stephen: 10/28/2015 06:06 CDT

@Red As someone who actually watched (on live TV) Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out onto the lunar surface in 1969 let me tell you that that racing-a-rival-nation motivation for Apollo is, IMHO, vastly overrated, if only because the Soviet program was for the most part invisible, and thus largely a phantom rival. Certainly, AFAIK, that rivalry did not affect the Apollo missions in terms of what they accomplished or how they went about accomplishing it. Apollo is still the gold standard of manned missions in terms of the science they accomplished during their all-too-brief stays on the Moon, and therefore which any Mars missions will doubtless be measured against. That said, without anybody for the politicians to compete against it is unclear when, or even if, NASA will even get to put people on Mars. In particular if somebody else gets there first--I'm looking at you Mars One!--expect enthusiasm to wane in Congress for spending the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars NASA will need to put people there. And even if NASA does get the opportunity, there then comes the question of how many missions will it send? Will it beat Apollo's six landings or will be struggling for three? After all, if Americans can tire of Moon landings, they are equally capable of growing bored with Mars ones and start watching re-runs of the Kardashians instead.

Karen: 10/28/2015 07:22 CDT

@Stephen - Don't analyze "motives" too much; it's already well established that the best bang for your science buck is "not sending humans at all". When we send humans, science is always the excuse, but it's really more of a "feel good"/"look to the future" sort of thing. And in such a case, why shouldn't there be good pictures for posterity (as well as a more interesting environment being good for the astronauts' psychological well-being - these are people, not robots we're talking about)? Re: Mars One: I assume that's a joke. Mars One is a scam. As for how many missions there would be, that really depends on how cheaply they can rotate crew. And that's really the question, isn't it? You have any number of fixed capital costs to build the habitat, but every mission thereforth (at least for the forseeable future) would use the same habitat - it's not like Apollo where you can lock them up in the little tin can that they arrived in for a short period of time with all systems based on expendables because they'll be going home soon. It's more like ISS in terms of the need to sustain itself, only orders of magnitude moreso due to the long resupply transit times. You compensate for the lack of different places to land by choosing a diverse area and making sure your astronauts are highly mobile on the surface. 100km radius (200km diameter) is actually a pretty darn big radius - that's 1% the circumference of the entire planet, covering an area the size of Belgium. Its 1/3rd the area of my home, Iceland, and I can't imagine trying to scientifically investigate every hill and ravine in a whole third of the country.

Stephen: 10/28/2015 09:37 CDT

@Karen: "it's already well established that the best bang for your science buck is "not sending humans at all". Is it? Steve Squyres had this to say on the subject (in 2009): http://www.space.com/6972-steve-squyres-robot-guy-humans-mars.html "I'm a robot guy…, but I'm actually a very strong supporter of human spaceflight. I believe that the most successful exploration is going to be carried out by humans, not by robots. What Spirit and Opportunity have done in 5 1/2 years on mars you and I could have done in a good week." I would also note that NASA discovered more about about the Moon through the Apollo missions than it did from all the previous unmanned probes there put together. @Karen: "As for how many missions there would be, that really depends on how cheaply they can rotate crew." That statement seems to assume: 1) That no further cargo missions (to replenish food, spare parts, etc) need to be sent. 2) That a crew departs Mars on the ship which brings its relief crew. I suspect, at least with the first few missions, that no new crews will be sent until each previous crew has (safely) returned. @Karen: "You compensate for the lack of different places to land by choosing a diverse area " Tell that to the people who chose Gusev! They were expecting a lakebed not a lavafield. Picking a site based on on orbital data turned out to be more like rolling dice than they expected. Nor was that even the first time. The boffins were equally mistaken with the site for Apollo 16. Which raises a question: would you really want to bet the farm on a site chosen solely on the basis of orbital data or would you (at least for the initial missions) try to play it safe and invest in a known quantity? That is, a site a previous lander mission had already visited. Of course the known quantity option would reduce the range of sites available.

Stephen: 10/28/2015 09:45 CDT

@Karen: "It's more like ISS in terms of the need to sustain itself, only orders of magnitude moreso due to the long resupply transit times," It is open to debate whether the technology for a Mars habitat with the sort of self-sustainability you envisage will be available by the time the planners need to decide such things, which would probably be around the late 2020s if they want to sent the habitat in (say) the mid-2030s. @Karen: "100km radius (200km diameter) is actually a pretty darn big radius - that's 1% the circumference of the entire planet,", Gusev crater is 166 km in diameter. Long Island, NY, is 190 km in length. Just how much diversity would you expect to find on Long island? Or in Gusev? If NASA ties itself down to one site it had better be darn right about that site or there will be hell to pay.

Karen: 10/28/2015 06:22 CDT

"What Spirit and Opportunity have done in 5 1/2 years on mars you and I could have done in a good week." For fifty times the price. The amount of time it takes a robot to collect the data is irrelevant when you only have the budget for such a mission every several years. For the cost of a manned mission you could dispatch robotic explorers carrying massive troves of scientific equipment of every sort to every corner of the planet. Humans cut back on latency, but so what? More key: at what cost? "I suspect, at least with the first few missions, that no new crews will be sent until each previous crew has (safely) returned. I assume that as well, and of course I assume various resupply coming with crew. But heavy cargo is more efficiently delivered unmanned via a slower orbital transfer mechanism, so the amount one expects to come with crew would be limited. Unless needed as radiation shielding. @Stephen - "It is open to debate whether the technology for a Mars habitat with the sort of self-sustainability you envisage" I think you envision more than me. I'm not talking about mining operations and the like, except for the possibility of ice. I'm mainly talking about, for example, oxygen generation that's not always breaking down like on ISS, better water reclamation, etc. "Gusev crater is 166 km in diameter. Long Island, NY, is 190 km in length." 100 km radius is 200km diameter/chord length. Gusev crater is 70% the size of the target roving area. And was not chosen for 100km-radius diversity from the landing site. If you want to pick non-diverse areas on Earth, go right ahead. But it's not as if they're going to pick some random barren landscape, they're going to *choose* destinations. The equivalent would be to *choose* a diverse area on Earth. The amount of diversity of geology in 30.000km^3 of Iceland, for example, is mind-boggling. That said, I think you underestimate the amount of diversity even in Long Island, as it's been largely covered up.

jpldoc: 10/28/2015 09:54 CDT

Diversity will be key, I agree but safety and water availability will be even more important. Most important of all is funding, of course. A new orbiter to replace MRO in 2022 and then preliminary robotic exploration are a must. We need a good reason and location to send humans because most of the budget will be spent keeping said humans alive.

Stephen: 10/29/2015 04:56 CDT

On the manned vs unmanned issue... @Karen: "For fifty times the price." But you also get 50 times the science for your buck. The Soviets had 3 lunar sample return missions that succeeded but they brought back a mere fraction of the samples--in terms of quantity and diversity--that the Apollo missions did. Not surprisingly then it was the Apollo missions and the rocks they returned which revolutionised our knowledge of the Moon, not the few grams of regolith the Soviet missions returned. Similarly, it has taken multiple missions sent over 50+ years to get to the state of knowledge about Mars that we have today. In contrast, a single manned mission could have accomplished much the same ends and more (and probably done it for much the same cost as all those unmanned missions, successful or otherwise, put together). @Karen: "I assume various resupply coming with crew." Perhaps, though I suspect the resupplying would most likely be sent ahead via an unmanned lander. Why? because such a lander would be able to carry more supplies than if you tried to bundle all them in with the crew in a single manned lander. @Karen: "…a slower orbital transfer mechanism…" Not sure what you mean by this. Do you mean something like the Aldrin recyclers? That is, a mechanism which is in a permanent orbit between Earth and Mars? @Karen: "I'm not talking about mining operations and the like" Neither was I. When you said a Mars mission would be "not like Apollo where you can lock them up in the little tin can that they arrived in for a short period of time with all systems based on expendables" the implication seemed to be that you were expecting (given that food, air, & water would be the three chief expendables of any manned mission) more recycling of air, water, and human bodily waste and (maybe) more food grown/produced (in some fashion) in the habitat.

Stephen: 10/29/2015 05:11 CDT

@Karen: "If you want to pick non-diverse areas on Earth, go right ahead." IMHO placing diversity as your highest priority risks placing the cart in front of the horse. First of all, the reason you are choosing diversity as a goal at all has less to do with science and more to do with the convenience of your planners and explorers so as to save on the expense of sending each mission to a different site. In short, you are doing it that way to save a buck; and as with most budget cutting measures you are doing so by cutting corners. Secondly, it strikes me that placing diversity as your highest priority risks choosing a site which may not necessarily be representative of Mars as a whole. Take Iceland, which you laud as "mind-boggling[ly]" diverse. OK, just how representative is iceland's geology and biology in terms of Earth as a whole? I ask that because Iceland is basically a volcanic island. It may well have a "mind-boggling" diversity of igneous geology, but what about sedimentary geology? How diverse it is in that? Then there is its biological diversity. How does that rack up for Iceland? @Karen: "you underestimate the amount of diversity even in Long Island, as it's been largely covered up." You could probably say that about most places on Earth. But just how is that relevant? Will a Mars site be chosen for its diversity deep underground or what can be seen on or near the surface? Will a manned Mars mission--the initial ones at any rate--be bringing along drilling rigs and mining gear or will they confine their investigations to places on or near the surface? BTW, my point in pointing to Long Island was that a 200km diameter circle is not as large as you seem to think it is, a point you then proceeded to prove (!) by pointing to Iceland, whose size is way bigger than 200 km across!

Karen: 10/29/2015 05:31 CDT

The Soviet Luna program was a blip on the budget of the USSR. Their (caatastrophic-failure) manned program was not. And the US's Apollo program consumed 2,2% of the federal budget and 0,4% of the entire nation's GDP. And the US only sampled double the number of regions with a bit more diversity. Had the US budget been dedicated to *just* returning samples, it could have gotten *far* more, from many more locations. All of the money wasted developing and all of the payload spent carrying things to keep humans alive could have been dedicated to sample return. A "single manned mission" absolutely would not have taught us what we know about Mars today. Probably the most data about Mars, for example, has come from HiRISE. Did humans suddenly grow incredibly powerful telescopic eyes? "Wait," I hear you say, "we could have given humans telescopes to operate!" Indeed you could. But of those components, the human and the telescope, which one is *completely unecessary to accomplishing the goal*? (answer: the human). And question two, which one costs orders of magnitude more? Answer again: the human. It's the scientific hardware that we send, and whether we budget a sample return, that matters. Humans don't have mass-spectrometers built into their thumbs or xray fluorescence systems hidden under their ears. The humans are just remoras on the whole thing. They reduce latency, but again, who gives a rat's arse about latency? Re: recycling: Air, water and waste, yes. Food, no, except at the research scale. Apollo by contrast did no air, water, etc recycling. This is unacceptable on Mars.

Mewo: 10/29/2015 05:32 CDT

@Stephen: "Secondly, it strikes me that placing diversity as your highest priority risks choosing a site which may not necessarily be representative of Mars as a whole." I'm not convinced that the best landing place needs to be the most representative of Mars as a whole. It's obvious that, even if money-saving is low on the list of priorities, mission planners will pick the most interesting and useful-looking locations first. That will inevitably be varied, rather than homogeneous, terrain.

Karen : 10/29/2015 05:43 CDT

"I ask that because Iceland is basically a volcanic island. It may well have a "mind-boggling" diversity of igneous geology, but what about sedimentary geology? How diverse it is in that?" Given that we're surrounded by marine sedimentation and also have glacial sedimentation and non-glacial sedimentary deposits as well (ex. coal)? Yeah we have that too. "Then there is its biological diversity. How does that rack up for Iceland?" We're talking *geology* here. But on that front you'd be surprised, because fossils here show the great changes in the biome over time. There were even redwood forests here from around 10 Mya. "You could probably say that about most places on Earth. But just how is that relevant? Will a Mars site be chosen for its diversity deep underground" I'm not talking "deep underground" in NYC. Go to Central Park and take a look around. Even a cursory surface glance will tell you the history of two different mountain-building periods and the time when it was under 300 meters of ice. There's actually a rather complex geological history.

Mewo: 10/29/2015 10:12 CDT

I think it's likely that we will eventually go to Mars to colonise it, and probably terraform it in the very long term. Sooner or later we're going to have to send people there anyway, so why not start learning how to do it right away?

Stephen: 10/30/2015 03:44 CDT

@Karen: "The Soviet Luna program was a blip on the budget of the USSR" So was it's scientific contribution to our current knowledge of the Moon. That hardly helps your argument re unmanned programs.. @Karen: "Had the US budget been dedicated to *just* returning samples, it could have gotten *far* more, from many more locations." Really? OK, what would have been the cost per mission? How much (and what kinds) of samples would each be returning? The 3 Soviet lunar sample mission returned a grand total of 326 grams (that's less than 1 pound) of material. In contrast, Apollo returned 382 KILOgrams. Moreover, AFAIK the Soviet samples were all regolith. in contrast, Apollo returned not just regolith, but also rocks, core samples, parts of Surveyor 3, and solar wind particles in the solar wind experiment. Plus they also landed other experiments such as seismometers which carried on returning data after the Apollos themselves returned. Plus the last three CSMs carried cameras and other gear which were used to return photographic and other data of other areas of the Moon under their orbital track (albeit those tracks were largely equatorial). Plus the last three Apollos carried rovers which allowed the astronauts to sample areas far removed from their landing sites. Would any US unmanned missions of that era have carried rovers as well as sample return craft? Even the Soviet lunar rovers were separate missions from their sample return ones. @Karen: "All of the money wasted developing and all of the payload spent carrying things to keep humans alive could have been dedicated to sample return." With all due respect, that is a naive statement. The ONLY reason all that money was spent in the first place was BECAUSE it was used to send human beings to the Moon. Had no humans gone anywhere near the Moon the overwhelming majority of the money spent on Apollo would never have made it anywhere near NASA, much less the Moon.

Stephen: 10/30/2015 03:50 CDT

@Karen: "A "single manned mission" absolutely would not have taught us what we know about Mars today." Obviously that would depend on the capability of the mission. @Karen:: "But of those components, the human and the telescope, which one is *completely unecessary to accomplishing the goal*?" You are aware, I trust, that a telescopic camera like HiRise on an unmanned craft still uses humans as an essential part of the way it works. The only difference is that with HiRise all the humans are sitting on Earth. They tell HiRise where to point and when to take its pics. Without humans ANY unmanned mission would be a piece of useless hardware. Calling the human element "completely unnecessary" is therefore. frankly, bizarre. The difference between having humans at Mars with the camera rather than all on Earth is that the camera could be controlled in real time by the humans at Mars rather than by humans who are subject to the light speed limit imposed by the Earth-Mars distance; and of course operations on Mars would not need to shut down when the Sun lies between Mars and Earth. @Karen: ""It's the scientific hardware that we send, and whether we budget a sample return, that matters." A single Martian sample return mission will likely cost somewhere in the order or $7-10 billion and take about a decade to accomplish (even if we assume each of the three parts is sent at successive Mars launch windows, which is an unlikely prospect at this stage). Given that expense tag, how many of those missions do you imagine are likely to be sent? @Karen: "Humans don't have mass-spectrometers built into their thumbs or xray fluorescence systems hidden under their ears." You do realise that if an unmanned spacecraft can carry tools like mass spectrometers so can a manned one? And they would not need to be fitted to human thumbs. Another bonus.

Stephen: 10/30/2015 04:14 CDT

@Karen: "They reduce latency, but again, who gives a rat's arse about latency?" Didn't you read that Steve Squyres quote I posted? Each of the Apollo lunar rovers travelled further in a day, and its crew accomplished more in that day, than the MER rovers or Curiosity do in a a month. Your notion that "latency" does not matter is therefore, frankly, bizarre. @Karen: "We're talking *geology* here." For better or for worse, for most Mars missions--the lander ones at any rate--geology is but a side-show to biology. It dominated the Viking missions, and the "follow the water" strategy on subsequent American Mars landers has less to do with bits of rock than with sussing out habitats for putative martian life. That being the case, expect biology to play a big part in any manned missions. @Karen "Go to Central Park…" Technically speaking Central Park is on Manhattan Island, not Long island. Will Mars explorers also be able to venture outside their 100km rover radius? BTW, just how much of the original (ie natural) Central Park remains on or near the surface for geologists to study? Most of what I have seen of it has been highly modified by humans. @Karen: "Even a cursory surface glance will tell you the history of two different mountain-building periods and the time when it was under 300 meters of ice." So NASA doesn't need to send a sample return mission to Mars? Just more cameras?

Stephen: 10/30/2015 04:49 CDT

@Mewo: "even if money-saving is low on the list of priorities" Sic? "Money-saving" is likely to be high on Congress's priority list, even if it isn't necessarily on NASA's. But since Congress will be providing the money, guess what will happen if NASA treats "money-saving" as a low priority? (Actually we don't need to guess. We need only look at the last time NASA got the green light to draw up plans for a manned mission to Mars: back during the presidency of George HW Bush. It promptly drew up plans for a Rolls-Royce class program which was costed at around $100 billion! Needless to say those plans sank without trace.) @Mewo: "That will inevitably be varied, rather than homogeneous, terrain." There is no "inevitability" about it. Much will depend on whether NASA's manned Mars missions all land at one site or (as with Apollo) go to different ones. If they are not tied to a single site then diversity becomes less crucial. Diversity only becomes important if all of NASA's manned Mars mission eggs are required to be in one convenient basket. @Mewo: "and probably terraform it" Expect large amounts of opposition to terraforming if life is ever found on Mars, just as there is currently swelling opposition to humanity's terraforming (albeit inadvertent) of Earth, aka "global warming". @Mewo: "Sooner or later we're going to have to send people there anyway," "Have to"? Why? Is Earth approaching its use-by date?

GaryChurch: 01/08/2016 12:52 CST

Humans should not land on Mars. They should go the Moon first. After assembling the really big spaceships with massive shielding and artificial gravity there then Mars becomes the place to bypass in favor of the ocean moons of the gas giants.

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