Monday, July 25, 2011

Next Mars Rover Targets Gale Crater

When NASA's Vikings reached Mars 35 years ago, scientists and engineers had only vague ideas about where the mission's twin life-seeking landers should set down on the surface. Remarkable in hindsight, members of the site-selection team gave themselves only two weeks to find the best landing spot for Viking 1 — and ultimately had to scrap their provisional Plans A and B (too many big rocks!) and delay the first landing by two more weeks as they scrambled to find a suitable Plan C.

There'll be no such hurry-up offense for the space agency's next Red Planet adventure. When the Mars Science Laboratory (a.k.a. "Curiosity") departs Earth on or about November 25th, the mission's 263 scientists will know with certainty that it's headed for 4.4868ºS and 137.4239ºE — a target on the broad floor of Gale crater.

NASA managers announced the choice of Gale over three other final candidates during an hour-long press briefing on Friday.

Whereas the Viking team had only relatively crude orbital imagery, some water-vapor measurements, and a few ground-based radar scans to work with, MSL's site selection involved deliberations over five years by 150 scientists, who hashed over 60 possible sites using 16 sets of detailed measurements and met in five dedicated workshops. The final four candidates, which underwent intense scrutiny after being picked in 2008, were:

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