SpaceX begins hunt for Starship landing sites on Mars


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Candidate landing sites for SpaceX's Starship

In the August image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) were five images whose title immediately caught my interest:

The overview map on the right shows the location on Mars for these five photographs. The second and third images are of the same location, taken to produce a stereo pair.

To put it mildly, it is most intriguing to discover that SpaceX is beginning to research a place where it can land Starship on Mars. I immediately emailed Nathan Williams, the JPL scientist who requested these images from SpaceX, but he was bound by a non-disclosure agreement with SpaceX and could not comment. I have since tried to get some information directly from SpaceX but so far the company has not responded. A 2017 news story had indicated the company’s interest in this Mars’ location, but gave no details either.

Based on what we now know of Mars, however, it is possible to figure out why they favor this location, on the border between the two large northern lowland plains Arcadia and Amazonis Planitia.

An example of a nearby lobate debris apron glacier
Click for full image.

Full resolution inset of glacier

First and foremost, there is strong evidence that this location holds buried glaciers called lobate debris aprons. The hilly arc where site #1 is nestled, dubbed Erebus Montes, apparently is filled with these kinds of glaciers, according to this global Martian map of glacier locations (shown as the yellow arc near the left edge in the northern glacial band).

Site #1 appears to be this kind of glacier, though the feature is not very dramatic. To the right are images of a very nearby but more distinct lobate debris apron glacier, located just to the east of Site #1. The top image, reduced and cropped to post here, shows the southern half of this mound. The white box indicates the location of the full resolution close-up below, showing what appear to be glacial erosion features.

Compare this glacier with this buried Martian glacier image I posted last week. Though that earlier image was for a different type of Martian buried glacier, dubbed concentric crater fill because they are found inside craters, the erosion features look remarkably similar, both reminding me of the surface of a large ice block after you have sprayed it with warm water and it begins to melt away unevenly.

The evidence that SpaceX is looking for locations near buried glaciers is further reinforced by the fact that all the locations above are inside the northern 30-60 degree latitude band where Martian glaciers are thought to exist in abundance, either as lobate aprons or concentric crater glaciers.

These locations have other advantages. They are all at about 40 degrees latitude, meaning their climate will be relatively mild, for Mars. The terrain for site #5 is very flat, making for a very safe landing zone that is also very close to the debris aprons at the other sites.

There is also other evidence of buried ground ice at these sites. In fact, planetary scientists have already proposed this location [pdf] as a significant site for exploration, because the ground water here might be shallow. To quote from this presentation: “Easy access to subsurface ice means that it should be easy to sample.”

Based on the pace that SpaceX sets in anything it does, expect their research of this location to accelerate in the next year or so. Unlike NASA, SpaceX is building a vehicle that is designed to go and land anywhere in the solar system. Once Super Heavy and Starship are operational and proven in those first lunar flights there will be nothing to stop it from going to Mars, if only to demonstrate what the design is capable of.

And based on their pace, expect this possibility sometime in the next decade.

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15 comments

  • A. Nonymous

    Given Elon’s interest in terraforming, I’m a little surprised that he’s looking at real estate that would (hopefully) end up underwater.

    I wonder, though, if he has anybody at Tesla working on designs for an RV-sized rover, powered either by panels+batteries or (even better) Kilopower. A couple of those (two is one, one is none) would provide more than enough range to keep multiple crews busy.

  • https://www.universetoday.com/93059/large-amounts-of-water-ice-found-underground-on-mars/amp/

    This is the map which explains their interest in this area. Being right next to some hills might be useful from a resource standpoint too.

  • DougSpace: That map is only one piece of evidence, and in fact I would guess it is a very minor one, as the map’s resolution is very poor. What it does however is strengthen the belief, based on a lot of other data, that this location has water ice, and that these features are likely buried glaciers.

  • Also, that location is the high water ice area closest to the locations which passengers would want to travel to see (Olympus Mons, Tharsus, & more distant, Valles Marinares).

  • DougSpace: Actually, there are many more water ice areas that are much closer to Olympus Mons, Tharsus, and Valles Marineris. See the global glacier map at the top of my article, The glaciers of Mars.

    What makes this location appealing I think is the combination of easily accessible water, a flat region that makes for a safe landing, and (most important) a region that is very far from all other previous or planned landing sites. See the map at this BtB post, Present and future landing sites on Mars.

  • M Puckett

    Arcadia? Why not just land on Duran Duran? I hope they bring a large Power Station as well.

  • MrSatyre

    Nuts! They need to go big or go home. Land in Olympus Mons! 😉

  • Edward

    A. Nonymous wrote: “Given Elon’s interest in terraforming, I’m a little surprised that he’s looking at real estate that would (hopefully) end up underwater.

    I have long pondered the advantages to starting a colony in low-lying areas over the disadvantage of it becoming the Martian Atlantis by the time terraforming is complete. For instance, a colony in a lower area gives Starship a little more atmosphere for slowing down and landing. Should terraforming become a problem for the early colonies, then they can be abandoned in favor of later ones that are built on higher ground. Presumably the higher colonies would be more popular once terraforming begins, so the lower ones may not grow too large — sort of like a Martian equivalent of flooding a town in order to make a reservoir on Earth.

    I suspect that SpaceX is looking at the short-term goal of getting to the surface in order to begin exploration, and intends to start long-term colonies in higher ground as the company learns to land in the thinner atmosphere. It may be more like Apollo 11’s landing site. It was not the most desirable for the scientists, but it was relatively safe and it got the job done. Later landings were more serious about the science.

    MrSatyre,
    Excellent suggestion. To paraphrase the song, if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

  • Zivbnd

    Regarding landing in the lower elevations, they may be under water after a century or two of Terraforming. But they may also reach the Armstrong Limit a century before the higher elevations. Think big, dicey comets from the asteroid belt burning up in the presently thin Martian atmosphere and a whole lot of greenhouse gas emissions from Martian power plants. Water vapor is a poor greenhouse gas but a lot of it will do part of the job.

  • Andrew_W

    Mars wouldn’t have to be warmed too much to get liquid water on the surface, eventually the oceans would melt, since there’s probably subsurface ice over much of the planet such a big melt would leave the stability of land everywhere (except perhaps in the equatorial belt). Obviously the solution is to float the colony on the earliest forming ocean. Don’t fear, Elon’s got it all planned.

  • Jay Elink

    This is a good-faith question about terraforming Mars.

    It’s believed that Mars lost most of its atmosphere because it lacks a magnetic field to ward off the scouring effects of the solar wind.

    If true, how would terraforming be possible, if convection and winds sent the human-added atmosphere upwards to be blown away? Seems like the process could never end, and if that’s true, where will the materials and energy come from to emit trillions of tons of gases and vapors into the Mars atmosphere?

    I’ve read somewhere that people have claimed an artificial magnetic field could be created. Anyone know anything about that?

    I’ve also seen articles pointing out the prevalence of perchlorates in Martian sands and soils, a chemical that would have to be removed in order for plants to grow. Whole lotta energy needed to do that as well.

  • Edward

    Jay Elink asked: “If true, how would terraforming be possible, if convection and winds sent the human-added atmosphere upwards to be blown away?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terraforming_of_Mars

    The loss of the atmosphere is a slow process, relative to terraforming. Mars could remain relatively terraformed for millions of years. The materials would come from Mars itself, water from below the surface and from the poles, and the CO2 from the poles would add to the pressure of the atmosphere

    We cannot make Mars Earth-like with the materials at Mars, and bringing more materials from asteroids would be expensive, and maybe we could keep up with the loss of atmosphere or add to it, if we find a way to keep what we have. The atmosphere would not become as thick as Earth’s and would not be breathable, but it could become thick enough to make a pressure suit unnecessary.

    One way to terraform would be to put biological units (e.g. bacteria) on the surface to transform what is there into a better atmosphere and to make the soil better for plants. There are ideas of melting the poles using something like dust that captures the sun’s warmth and melts the polar caps.

    It is a fascinating topic, and when we have terraformed a planet then we will know more about how to do it.

  • Mat

    Parking under the clouds by arsia mons might be a good idea. Could send up tethered balloon to condense the frosty clouds for water. Rather than from frozen mud. Less filtering needed. Clouds might add just a little extra protection from radiation. If there’s clouds there now. In the future if humans make a go of it. Would imagine it would be one of the first places it would rain there. Entry through the atmosphere might be more ideal through the clouds, than not going through clouds. Slightly more drag.

  • Mat: Have some fun: Do a search on Behind the Black for “Arsia Mons.” You will have a lot of cool stuff to read.

  • Enrique Flores

    Even as the diehard optimist I am, any talk of terraforming is beyond premature, for the record. I’m mostly just surprised they’re already so confident Starship will work that they’re scouting out possible landing sites already.

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