Today, tomorrow, and Wednesday, about 200 scientists and engineers will sit in an over-air-conditioned room in Monrovia, California (which must have been one of the cool spots in the Los Angeles area) to participate in what is officially titled the "Fourth Mars Science Laboratory Landing Site Community Workshop." The word "community" is what makes this meeting different from nearly every other meeting taking place in the preparation for the next Mars landing: today's meeting (and the three like it that happened before, and the one more like it that will happen in the spring) are open to anybody. Anybody who has any interest in where the Curiosity rover will land is permitted to attend, listen to the arguments for the four possible landing sites, listen to the discussions of what Curiosity may be able to accomplish at any of the sites, ask questions, and comment.
The decision of where to land the rover will not be made by this group, either today or at the final meeting. That decision is, ultimately, the responsibility of NASA Headquarters, which will make the decision based only partially on the input of the science community. Still, I think it's remarkable (and good) that the community is invited to participate.
There are currently four sites under consideration: Mawrth, Holden, Gale, and Eberswalde. To learn more about these four possible landing sites, I invite you to read an excellent summary by Lisa Grossman over at Wired Science. This list actually hasn't changed for a couple of years. When the launch of Curiosity was delayed in December 2008, the mission did invite the wider scientific community to take advantage of the extra time to see if any new scientific results warranted the consideration of any additional possible landing site choices. Since then, although two potentially interesting sites were identified ("Margaritifer" and "Northeast Syrtis"), the mission determined that both sites had potential problems for a safe landing, and they made a formal decision to contain the sites under consideration to these four.
What's changed in the last two years is the amount of data we have on each site. That's been two full years of data acquisition by three Mars orbiters. The real star for landing site selection is Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter with its high-resolution instruments, the HiRISE camera and CRISM imaging spectrometer. The amount of data available on the sites is actually challenging for scientists to cope with, and among the topics of today's meeting is the work being done by the HiRISE and CRISM teams to create data products that make it easier for scientists who are not members of those teams to take in, analyze, and interpret all that data.
Here's a review of what science Curiosity is intended to do when she finally lands on Mars, about exactly one Mars year from now. These words are the official ones, taken from this presentation (PDF, 2 MB). Overall, the goal is to "Explore and quantitatively assess a local region on Mars' surface as a potential habitat for life, past or present." In more detail, what Curiosity will do to achieve this goal is to:
- Assess the biological potential of at least one target environment.
- Determine the nature and inventory of organic carbon compounds.
- Inventory the chemical building blocks of life (C, H, N, O, P, S).
- Identify features that may represent the effects of biological processes.
- Characterize the geology and geochemistry of the landing region at all appropriate spatial scales.
- Investigate the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of martian surface and near-surface geological materials.
- Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and regolith.
- Investigate planetary processes of relevance to past habitability, including the role of water.
- Assess long-timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) atmospheric evolution processes.
- Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and CO2.
- Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic cosmic radiation, solar proton events, and secondary neutrons.
When Curiosity gets there, she'll be able to drive at 4.2 centimeters per second (half that if she's navigating autonomously, a quarter that if she's using visual odometry), traversing around 100-150 meters per driving sol, and she should manage to drive at least 20 kilometers over her lifetime, which should take her outside her 20-kilometer-diameter landing ellipse.
Here's some past stuff I've written about this rover, including my notes from the second and third site selection meetings. The next post -- which may not happen today, sorry -- will contain my notes from today's meeting. You can visit me on Twitter for some of the highlights if you can't wait!
- May 14, 2007: Update on the Mars Science Laboratory site selection process (includes the engineering constraints matrix)
- May 30, 2007: The Next Generation Mars Rover
- Jun 1, 2007:Got questions on how Mars Science Laboratory will land?
- Jun 20, 2007: Mars Science Laboratory is going to be HUGE
- Sep 18, 2007: Budget Axe Falls on Mars Science Laboratory
- Oct 23, 2007: Reporting from the second Mar Science Laboratory landing site selection meeting
- Oct 24, 2007: CRISM maps of possible Mars landing sites
- Oct 25, 2007: MSL landing site selection meeting: Day 2 site-by-site presentations
- Oct 29, 2007: MSL: Landing site downselections
- News Flash: ChemCam and MARDI have been saved!
- Sep 15, 2008: MSL landing site meeting, September 15-17, 2008
- Sep 15, 2008: MSL landing site meeting: Where on Mars to look for ancient life
- Sep 16, 2008: MSL landing site meeting: Getting beaten up is good for science
- Sep 17, 2008: MSL landing site meeting: Votes are in!
- Oct 10, 2008: MSL is still on target for a 2009 launch, no matter what anybody says
- Dec 4, 2008: Mars Science Laboratory is delayed two years and More details on the delay of Mars Science Laboratory
- Mar 26, 2010: Happy, happy day: We may see the right MastCam on MSL after all
- May 22, 2010: Official launch and landing dates announced for Curiosity
- Jul 23, 2010: Curiosity rolls!
- Sep 20, 2010: Seeing Curiosity