Status Report

First Announcement: First Landing Site Workshop for the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory

By SpaceRef Editor
January 19, 2006
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First Announcement: First Landing Site Workshop for the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory


Dear Colleagues:

You are invited to participate in the First Landing Site Workshop for the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover mission to Mars. The workshop will be held May 31 through June 2, 2006, in Pasadena, California.


The purpose of the Landing Site workshop is to identify and evaluate potential landing sites best suited to achieving stated mission science objectives within the constraints imposed by engineering requirements, planetary protection requirements, and the necessity of ensuring a safe landing. A NASA-appointed Landing Site Steering Committee and the Mars Science Laboratory Project will use the results of the workshop as the basis for narrowing the list of potential landing sites under consideration. Community consensus with respect to high priority sites will also be solicited. In addition, the workshop will provide a means for identifying potential landing sites as targets for imaging by the MGS, Odyssey, MRO, and perhaps other orbital assets. Note: the number of potential landing sites is high because MSL entry, descent, and landing capabilities enable a small landing error ellipse (20 km diameter), high landing site altitude (<2 km), and wide latitudes (±60°).


The primary scientific goal of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is to assess the present and past habitability of the martian environments accessed by the mission. Habitability is defined as the potential of an environment to support life, as we know it. Such assessments require integration of a wide variety of chemical, physical, and geological observations. In particular, MSL will assess the biological potential of the regions accessed, characterize their geology and geochemistry at all appropriate spatial scales, investigate planetary processes that influence habitability, including the role of water, and characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation. To enable these investigations, MSL will carry a diverse payload capable of making environmental measurements, remotely sensing the landscape around the rover, performing in situ analyses of rocks and soils, and acquiring, processing, and ingesting samples of rocks and soils into onboard laboratory instruments. A candidate landing site should contain evidence suggestive of a past or present habitable environment. To the extent that it can be determined with existing data, the geological, chemical, and/or biological evidence for habitability should be expected to be preserved for, accessible to, and interpretable by the MSL investigations.

An overview of the MSL mission can viewed at A summary of NASA’s Mars exploration strategy is at and additional information can be viewed at Web tools for visualizing and analyzing relevant Mars data as well as an archive of previously proposed and selected landing sites are available at and, which also includes a web based GIS interface for relevant Mars data. Web sites for MSL landing site selection activities are and the USGS PIGWAD site, where workshop announcements, program, and abstracts can be accessed along with more detailed descriptions of the MSL mission, science objectives and investigations, and instruments.


The MSL project has been assigned to Category IVc by NASA’s Planetary Protection Office with constraints on the landing site and regions accessed from it. Specifically, MSL is limited to landing sites not known to have extant water or water-ice within one meter of the surface. Later access to “special regions” defined in NPR 8020.12C (regions where terrestrial organisms are likely to propagate, or interpreted to have a high potential for the existence of extant martian life forms) is permitted only in the vertical direction through use of sterilized sampling hardware. The above are general guidelines for site selection; compliance of specific landing sites and nearby regions will be determined through discussions with the Planetary Protection Office during the site selection process.


Because the ability to ensure a successful landing for MSL is paramount, consideration of landing sites must include comprehensive assessment of limitations imposed by mission engineering constraints. Although these constraints continue to be established and refined, a description of preliminary values related to allowable locations, elevation, and surface properties follows.

The entry, descent and landing scenario employed by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) flight system places engineering constraints on what would be considered a safe landing site of high scientific interest. The dominant considerations in landing site placement are latitude, elevation and the landing ellipse size. The MSL flight system is capable of landing in a circle of 20 km diameter, within which everywhere must be safe for landing and roving. This circle can be placed anywhere on Mars that is below +2 km MOLA elevation and within 60° latitude of the equator (60°N to 60°S). Steady state horizontal and vertical winds and wind gusts are a concern during descent and landing, so areas with potentially high winds will need to be compared with landing system tolerance during development. The landing system uses a radar altimeter, so the entire landing site must be radar reflective. Slopes at long and intermediate (2-5 km and 20 m) wavelength could negatively impact the altimeter, requiring slopes over 2-5 km length scales <3° and slopes over 20 m length scales <15°. Short wavelength slopes affect landing stability and trafficability, requiring slopes over 5 m length scales <15°. Rocks higher than 0.6 m are a problem for landing, requiring areas with intermediate or lower rock abundance. The landing surface must be load bearing and trafficable and so must not be dominated by dust. Persistent cold surface temperatures and CO2 frost will negatively impact performance. These latter three considerations will likely eliminate areas with very low thermal inertia and very high albedo. Surface characteristics (short wavelength slope, rocks and dust) of a trafficable surface are similar to those required for safe landing, except the small landing ellipse and long traverse capability allow the possibility of considering "go to" sites. These sites have a safe landing site adjacent to the target of science interest and require traversing outside of the landing ellipse to sample the materials of highest interest. In this case, t into the region of highest science interest (required to accomplish the science objectives of the mission) must be trafficable from anywhere within the ellipse. All of the values for the parameters discussed will be refined during continuing design and development of the spacecraft, with updates posted on the web site, as will a more detailed discussion of these constraints. We expect the first posting around February 1, 2006 at and the USGS PIGWAD site:

All persons planning to participate in the workshop should review the science, engineering, and planetary protection constraints carefully, as only those landing sites that meet these constraints will be accepted for presentation at the workshop.


All members of the scientific community are encouraged to participate in this important activity. Persons wishing to make a presentation at the workshop are urged to carefully review the science objectives and engineering and planetary protection constraints at and at the USGS PIGWAD web site noted above.

Most of the workshop will be devoted to submitted papers describing: (1) the overall types of sites for MSL based on associated scientific and programmatic rationale and suitability for safe landing and roving; and (2) individual landing sites on Mars and their scientific merit and safety. Individuals must prepare an abstract (no longer than one page using standard LPSC abstract format) summarizing their proposed topic or site. Talks advocating an individual site must summarize the science merits and demonstrate that the proposed location satisfies the mission science, planetary protection, and engineering requirements. A clear statement of the rationale for continued consideration as a possible landing site should also be included. A program will be prepared from the submitted abstracts and will be posted along with logistical information in late April, 2006.

Abstracts (no longer than one page using standard LPSC abstract format) are due by March 28, 2006, and should be submitted electronically via Detailed instructions on abstract format and submission will also be posted at this web site in February, 2006.


The workshop will be held in the vicinity of JPL in Pasadena, CA, and there will not be a registration fee. In order to get a sense of the number of people likely to attend the workshop, interested individuals should indicate their intent to attend via by April 1st, 2006. Although we anticipate mostly oral presentations, there may also be poster sessions. Additional logistical information about the workshop will be distributed to the community in subsequent announcements and will be posted at: and Input from the science community is critical to identification of optimal landing sites for the MSL. We look forward to your involvement in these activities!


John Grant Matt, Golombek Co-Chairs, Mars Landing Site Steering Committee

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