University of Michigan - Department of Astronomy




Version: LifeWhere

Searching For Life Part 1:
Landing site for a Robotic Laboratory

In the introduction, it was noted that one of the best ways to find out if life ever existed on another planet is to send a laboratory to the planet. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is essentially that laboratory. Mars shows many indications that it was much warmer and wetter in the past, and may have been capable of supporting life.  In fact, there is some evidence to suggest there may still be liquid water just below the surface, which may provide a habitat for simple organisms. The goal of MSL is to investigate whether or not life ever existed on Mars.

There are two things the science team needs to consider in choosing where to send MSL: likelihood of finding evidence for life and mission safety. This part of the activity is focused on the likelihood of finding evidence for life.

The Research Objectives are summarized in the Mars Science Laboratory press kit, available from, or get a local copy here.

	The overarching science goal of the mission is to assess whether the
 	landing area ever had or still has environmental conditions favorable 
	to microbial life.
	The investigations to support that assessment include:
 		-Detecting and identifying any organic carbon compounds.
 		-Making an inventory of the key building blocks of life.
		-Identifying features that may represent effects of biological 
 		-Examining rocks and soils at and near the surface to interpret 
	the processes that formed and modified them.
 		-Assessing how Mars' atmosphere has changed over billions of years.
 		-Determining current distribution and cycles of water and carbon 
	dioxide, whether frozen, liquid or gaseous. 
	NASA will identify a Mars Science Laboratory landing site with
 	characteristics believed to make it among the most likely sites on 
	the planet to have retained clues to the presence of liquid water, a 
	condition favorable to life. The site will also need to meet criteria 
	making it suitable for a safe landing.

To maximize the chances of finding evidence of life, NASA must select a landing site very carefully. In particular, they need site that was hospitable to the widest possible diversity of life forms, but not a site that looks good for extant life (see the end of the introduction)


  1. What are the two most important criteria that need to be met to assure the best likelihood of detecting life, past or present? Explain your reasoning.

  2. Why would NASA want to avoid the high plateau formed by several enormous volcanoes that are now extinct (the region called the Tharsis)?

Check your answers with your GSI before proceeding.

Table 1 has a list of global maps available. Many of the maps are linked from the table, or from Go through the list, and place a check in the second column for every map you think will be useful in picking a landing site.  In the third column, explain why this will or will not be useful.

The following information about the maps may be helpful in determining the usefulness of each map. Note with all of the maps, there my be gaps where there is data missing. The missing data usually shows up as gaps of gray or black.

Table 1: Available Maps (may print on 2 pages)




MOLA topographic map with names (pdf) This is also the "Elevation" map used by Google, at



H ion abundance – equatorial



H ion abundance - poles



Hydrated mineral map, including
phyllosilicates and sulfates



Photographic Atlas of Mars at moc/moc_atlas/



Mars Global Surveyor gravitational anomaly map



Use the maps you selected to choose 2 potential landing sites.  Record the site names (Your GSI has Viking maps that may make it easier to find the names), latitude (in degrees with E or W to indicate east or west) & longitude (make it negative for areas south of the equator), and reason for choosing each site in table 2. If you want to try more than one area in the same region, give it a number in its name, such as Olympus Mons 1 and Olympus Mons 2.


Longitude (EorW), (±) Latitude








The current list of possible landing sites is at Were either of your sites on the current list of possible sits? If so, which one? If not, what might account for the difference?


updated: 3/19/10 by SAM

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