NASA recently issued an invitation to scientists to start the process of planning where astronauts should someday land on Mars. The First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars will be held in October at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. The purpose of the workshop is to identify and discuss possible locations on the Martian surface where a crew could land, live, and work.
NASA calls these places Exploration Zones (EZ)—areas with a radius of about 100 kilometers around the landing site, which would be investigated thoroughly during the first landing and subsequent missions to Mars. It’s critical that the best possible location is picked, not only for scientific investigations, but also for resources to sustain a human presence.
Where should we go? Should we choose a site that we already know well from previous exploration, such as the Curiosity rover’s Gale Crater? Or should we pick a site that gives us the best chance of finding Martian life, if it exists? As the answer to this question is not clear, shouldn’t we first send a life detection mission to Mars to at least get a better idea whether indigenous life might be present in the Exploration Zone? Or should we prioritize sites that provide shelter and resources, maybe one that’s close to a lava tube cave that might contain frozen water within? Maybe a combination of the above? All these possibilities will be discussed at the workshop.
The meeting should be an exciting step toward launching a human mission to Mars, which in turn will be a giant step toward humankind’s becoming an interplanetary species. Let’s just not forget to also have a spacecraft ready in time!