Seven Possible MSL Landing Sites


    Getting to Know Mount Sharp
    This image taken by the Mast Camera (MastCam) on NASA's Curiosity rover highlights the interesting geology of Mount Sharp, a mountain inside Gale Crater, where the rover landed. Download full image ›

    Survivor: Mars

    The Mars tribe has spoken. After searching far and wide for a landing site that can tell them if Mars was ever livable for microscopic life, the tribe of Mars experts has eliminated dozens of contenders. Only seven survive (labeled in white). In September 2008, three or four will be voted out. By spring of 2009, only one will survive to become the landing site of the Mars Science Laboratory rover.

    To persevere, a candidate landing site must win the confidence of two tribal clans. Scientists, the scholars, must be sure the chosen site is the most likely place where life might have had a chance. Engineers, the shipbuilders, must be sure the rover can safely reach the site and drive within it.

    The sole survivor will combine a deep love of adventure with due respect for safety. Safe means flat and fairly free of rocks. Challenging generally involves streambeds, rugged terrain, and rocks exposed in steep cliff walls. Sometimes, that difficult terrain is the best candidate for finding evidence of livable conditions.

    The survivor site will join six previous winners (labeled in yellow). May the best candidate win.

    Possible MSL Landing Site: Eberswalde Crater

    Eberswalde crater

    Eberswalde Crater offers the chance to explore an ancient river delta. In fact, the delta is the most convincing sign that a Martian river once flowed into a standing body of water. Stream channels in the delta have meandered over time. As the streams carved new channels, abandoned streambeds remained behind as "footprints." Today, many of these streambeds are higher than the surrounding terrain. That's because the water deposited sediments that hardened and became resistant to erosion. Orbiters above Mars have detected clay minerals in the sediments. Clays are evidence of past water activity for the Mars Science Laboratory to investigate. Clays form when water dissolves rocks into extremely fine-grained minerals. These minerals form layers, kind of like the parts of a sandwich.

    Gale Crater

    Gale Crater

    Gale Crater is a fascinating place to explore because of the mountain of layered materials in the middle. On Earth, this mound would be a mountain 5 kilometers (3 miles) high! The layers tell a story about what Mars was like in the past, perhaps spanning much of the history of the red planet. Studies from orbit have revealed that the layers have different minerals depending on their height. Near the bottom of the mound are clay minerals. Above the clay-bearing layers are layers with sulfur and oxygen-bearing minerals are above them. Flowing water appears to have carved channels in both the mound and the crater wall. To get to the mound, the Mars Science Laboratory would land in a flatter part of the crater and carefully work its way upward, layer by layer. Along the way, the rover would investigate how the layers formed and the environments in which they formed.

    Possible MSL Landing Site: Holden Crater

    Holden Crater

    Holden Crater sits within a string of craters that look like a chain of alpine lakes connected by a stream. The crater offers tantalizing clues to the history of water on Mars. Running water carved deep gullies in the crater. Water also carried sediments onto the floor of a prospective lakebed. These deposits are more than 3 billion years old, dating back to a wetter period of early martian history. Geological studies suggest that a massive, catastrophic flood may have breached part of the crater rim that was holding back water. The water eventually disappeared. Later, wind eroded the surface and exposed ancient sediments. Winds also formed ripples and dunes that are still visible on the surface today. Holden Crater offers the opportunity to examine some of the most ancient rocks on Mars. Another benefit of the site is that the mission would not have to drive far to get there. The rover would land on top of a "bajada," a high plateau of material eroded from nearby cliffs.

    Possible MSL Landing Site: Mawrth Vallis

    Mawrth Vallis

    Mawrth Vallis is smack in the middle of a region that has always been mysterious to scientists. This region is the boundary between the southern highlands and northern lowlands of Mars. It is a place where the entire planet suddenly drops in elevation. In effect, Mars is lopsided. Its southern hemisphere is higher in elevation than its northern hemisphere. Mawrth Vallis itself is an ancient channel carved by catastrophic floods. "Mawrth" is the Welsh word for Mars and "Vallis" is Latin for valley. Layered cliffs, which look like Neapolitan ice cream, are rich in clay minerals. Such minerals, called phyllosilicates, form in the presence of water. They may yield information about past environments that could have supported life. Mawrth Vallis is also conveniently near a hazard-free landing zone. The Mars Science Laboratory science team would use the rover to piece together the history of this puzzling site and look for conditions favorable to life.

    Possible MSL Landing Site: Miyamoto Crater

    Miyamoto Crater

    Miyamoto Crater is just west of the Plains of Meridiani. A huge hole in the ground, the crater is 150 kilometers (93 miles) wide. Rocks formed in the presence of water fill the crater's northeastern half. Like those discovered by the Opportunity rover, they include minerals of iron and sulfur. These materials likely settled on lake bottoms or in groundwater systems. In the southwestern portion of the crater floor, erosion has stripped them away. The eroded surfaces are windows into the very remote past. They reveal clays and other materials like those found in the most ancient Martian rocks. More than 3.5 billion years old, they date to the Noachian era. At that time, liquid water was likely present at the surface. Perhaps the water created an environment favorable to life.

    Possible MSL Landing Site: Nili Fossae Trough

    Nili Fossae Trough

    Nili Fossae Trough is a huge crack in the surface of Mars. The linear trough is about 25 kilometers (16 miles) wide. It formed when a huge meteor slammed into the surface and created the Isidis Basin to the east, one of the four largest impact basins on Mars. The impact caused the Martian surface to deform. The region has one of the largest, most diverse exposures of clay minerals. Clay minerals contain water in their mineral structure and may preserve organic materials. Scientists are excited about studying such deposits to understand past environments that could have supported life. The Mars Science Laboratory rover would land in the center of the trough, amid rocks that splattered outward when the crater formed. Volcanic rocks are also abundant, left behind by cooling lava that filled the trough. Over its mission, the rover would drive westward to a side canyon in the wall of the trough. There, spacecraft have detected a diversity of minerals in the ancient crust.

    Possible MSL Landing Site: Southern Meridiani

    Southern Meridiani

    Southern Meridiani is on a smooth Martian plain. Not far away, the Opportunity rover found evidence of flowing water in the past. Scientists now know that the plains have a complex story to tell. Their history involves flowing water, groundwater, lakes, and wind. The area also spans two major eras of Martian history. The Mars Science Laboratory rover would trace that history further back than ever before. Later in the mission, the rover would cross onto older crust of the Noachian era. There, the rover would study clay minerals and evidence for past flowing water observed from orbit. The rover would use its on-board science lab to study the environment of early Mars and whether it could have been friendly for life.