Australian Students Help Select Landing Sites for Mars Science Laboratory
At this year’s AMEC (Australian Mars Exploration Conference) Marion Anderson (Monash University) presented a talk on how she and her students are involved in selecting possible landing sites for MSL (Mars Science Laboratory). This research is being carried out in collaboration with NASA.
Marion and her students identified the top twelve possible sites for landing. The sites must conform to a number of criteria, such as having a flat circular area with a diameter of at least 10 km for MSL to land on. Ideally the site would be located between 60o N and 60o S.
Marion’s student team range from first years to postgraduates, and their involvement in the project is entirely voluntary. The students are organised in small groups, each focusing on a different possible site.
The MSL itself is the size of a large car and has six wheels. It is scheduled for launch in 2009, during the September – October period. It has an inbuilt nuclear power plant in place of the more usual solar panels. The MSL will land using the daunting Skycrane descent, in which the lander will be “dropped off” on the surface by a flying crane.
While on the surface of Mars, the MSL will map underground ice, analyse rock samples, and measure radiation, among other things. The MSL has an inbuilt sample analysis tank and laser to conduct the rock sampling. Rock cores can also be taken on site.
The minimum expected life span for the MSL is two years, and it can travel to a distance of over 20 kilometres. MSL can climb over obstacles 1 meter in height, and safely negotiate inclines of 15o or 25o if the need is great enough.
Marion Anderson first began her involvement with NASA in 2002, when she participated in a NASA sponsored field trip to Death Valley. She has now been working in the Monash University School of Geosciences for 10 years. She is very enthusiastic about her work, and has been fascinated with space since her childhood. “I’m a space nut,” claims Marion.