Selecting a landing site for a rover headed to Mars is a lengthy process that normally involves large committees of scientists and engineers. These committees typically spend several years weighing a mission’s science objectives against a vehicle’s engineering constraints, to identify sites that are both scientifically interesting and safe to land on.
For instance, a mission’s science team may want to explore certain geological sites for signs of water, life, and habitability. But engineers may find that those sites are too steep for a vehicle to land safely, or the locations may not receive enough sunlight to power the vehicle’s solar panels once it has landed. Finding a suitable landing site therefore involves piecing together information collected over the years by past Mars missions. These data, though growing with each mission, are patchy and incomplete.
Now researchers at MIT have developed a software tool for computer-aided discovery that could help mission planners make these decisions. It automatically produces maps of favorable landing sites, using the available data on Mars’ geology and terrain, as well as a list of scientific priorities and engineering constraints that a user can specify.