Map shows where the first Mars settlers could land

Mars water ice map
The area of Mars outlined by the white box, in Arcadia Planitia, is considered a tempting target for human settlement due to the availability of water ice. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Graphic)

A newly published survey pinpointing where Martian water ice is likely to lie close to the surface could serve as a roadmap for establishing the first human settlement.

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NASA checks out SpaceX’s landing plans for Mars

Starship on Mars
An artists’s conception shows SpaceX’s Starship craft on Mars. (SpaceX Illustration)

NASA is helping SpaceX get a fix on potential landing sites on Mars for its Starship super-spaceship, with an emphasis on Arcadia Planitia and Amazonis Planitia, regions where deposits of water ice may be found.

Another focus of NASA’s reconnaissance campaign in Phlegra Montes, a mountainous area just west of Arcadia Planitia in Mars’ northern hemisphere.

Pictures of the candidate sites were captured from orbit by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in June and July, and included in last month’s roundup of MRO imagery.

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Orbiter spots InSight lander on Mars’ surface

Mars InSight spottings
NASA’s InSight lander (at center, with its two solar arrays), its heat shield (at right) and its parachute (at left) were imaged on Dec. 6 and 11 by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Click on the image for a larger version. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona Photo)

Two weeks after NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars, its precise location on Elysium Planitia has been pinpointed, thanks to pictures from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

And it’s not just the car-sized lander: The orbiter even identified the sites where the spacecraft’s heat shield as well as its backshell and attached parachute ended up.

In today’s mission update, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the lander, heat shield and parachute are all within 1,000 feet of one another on the “heavenly plain” where InSight is gearing up to monitor Mars’ seismic activity and heat flow.

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Trickles on Mars look like sand, not water

Recurring slope lineae
Recurring slope lineae appear as dark streaks in this picture from the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona / Lujendra Ojha et al. / Geophysical Research Letters)

Scientists have long been intrigued by what seem to be wet streaks that appear on the slopes of Martian craters in warm weather, and disappear in winter. Now a research team reports that the best explanation is that they’re not wet streaks at all, but streaks of dust and sand.

The findings, published today in Nature Geoscience, are likely to disappoint those who hoped that the features known as recurring slope lineae, or RSLs, point to sources of liquid water beneath the Red Planet’s surface.

“This new understanding of RSL supports other evidence that shows that Mars today is very dry,” study lead author Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center said in a news release.

Some astrobiologists had hoped that the areas around the RSLs just might harbor subsurface life. That’s why NASA has said the thousands of potential RSL sites, including a smattering of prospects near the Curiosity rover, should be off-limits for the time being due to concerns about contamination.

The report in Nature Geoscience is based on an analysis of 151 streaky features at 10 sites. Nearly all of the streaks appear on slopes that are steeper than 27 degrees, which would be consistent with the behavior of tumbling sand. If the streaks were caused by water seeping from the subsurface, they should be seen on slopes that are less steep, the researchers say.

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Mars orbiter sees lander’s crash in color

Schiaparelli crash site
Blackened streaks and bright bits of debris can be seen in this image of the crash zone for the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona)

High-resolution color images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show the spot where the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander crashed – in black and white and red all over.

The 8-foot-wide Schiaparelli spacecraft was deployed from ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter and descended to the Red Planet’s surface on Oct. 19, but a glitch caused the descent to go awry in its final minutes.

Rather than making a controlled landing with the aid of its parachute and thrusters, Schiaparelli slammed into the surface at more than 180 mph, leaving a pattern of black streaks and a scattering of light-colored debris.

Those bits of debris show up particularly well in the latest pictures from MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE.

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Mars orbiter spots blackened remains of lander

Mars orbiter image
This image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the landing zone for the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe on Mars. Analysts say the bright spot shows where the lander’s parachute fell, and the black spot shows where the lander hit. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has caught sight of the blackened spot where a European lander apparently hit the Martian surface, providing the first visual evidence that the Schiaparelli probe did indeed bite the dust.

Before-and-after pictures from the orbiter’s low-resolution Context Camera also showed the appearance of a brand-new bright spot in the expected landing zone in Mars’ Meridiani Planum region. That bright spot is thought to be Schiaparelli’s 40-foot-wide parachute, which was apparently ejected earlier than intended.

The “before” image was taken in May, and the “after” image was taken on Oct. 20, a day after the lander’s descent.

The pictures will help guide follow-up observations to be made next week using MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE. The European Space Agency’s ExoMars team says even the low-resolution imagery is consistent with a high-speed impact that would have destroyed the lander.

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Orbiter shows how risky ‘Martian’ trek would be

Image: Acidalia Planitia
A picture from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the area of Acidalia Planitia where the fictional Ares 3 mission landed in “The Martian.” (Credit: NASA / JPL / Univ. of Arizona)

Marooned astronaut Mark Watney takes a harrowing trek from Mars’ Acidalia Planitia to Schiaparelli Crater in “The Martian,” which took the top spot on last weekend’s box-office list with $55 million. But pictures of the actual terrain from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest Watney’s trip would be even riskier in real life.

The science team behind the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, captured a series of images that correspond to scenes in the movie in response to requests from Andy Weir, who wrote the book on which “The Martian” is based.

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