University of Michigan - Department of Astronomy




Version: LifeLand

Searching For Life:
Landing site for a Robotic Laboratory Part 2: A Safe Place to Land

After NASA selects several good locations to search for life (see part 1), NASA needs a safe landing site. The Mars Science Laboratory is too massive for airbags, so it has to make a soft landing. It needs a level surface free of boulders or outcroppings that might tip it over. The spacecraft cannot land in polar regions because of the extra energy it would take to get the spacecraft out of the plane of the solar system and over the poles. The precision of the landing is limited to about 20 kilometers (12 miles. This is also about the same size as the expected range of the rover. However, as the Mars Exploration Rovers have shown, rovers sometimes keep going. If the landing site is a deep crater, you could end up with a working rover and nowhere to go. However, if there is something special about that crater, it might be worth it.

1. What are the criteria for a safe landing site?

If you did not do Part 1: Where to Search, your instructor will provide you with a list of potential landing sites. Use the information from this list whenever you are asked for something from table 2.

For this part you'll be using software called JMars developed at Arizona State University for browsing Mars data.  It is a Java applet, so it will run on any platform with Java installed.  For more info (or your own copy), see

  1. Open JMars and log in:
    1. Click the Group folder in the Dock to open it (it’s the one in the middle without any extra symbol on it)Dack with group folder
    2. Double click the JMars icon in the Astroclass folderJMars icon
    3. Click OK in the login window without entering any account info (an account will give you access to more data, so if you want to load this on your computer at home, you may want a free account)login window
  2. Two windows should open, the Layer Manager and the main or viewer window. If the Layer Manager isn't open, you can open it by going to View -> Layer Manager. If you close the main window, it will close the program.layer manager viewer window
  3. At the top of the viewer window is a space for the latitude and longitude labeled Lon, Lat. Enter the latitude and longitude using the same format as specified in table 2 and press the <return> key.
  4. There are 2 maps in the viewer window, the Main View and the panning view.  A red rectangle in the panning view shows the area covered by the main view.
  5. Below the panning view is an information bar. It will tell you different things
    1. Normally, it tells the lat & long of the current mouse position if the mouse is in the Main view or Panning view.
    2. If you click once in the main view then move the mouse, it tells the lat & long of the current mouse position, plus the degrees AND DISTANCE the mouse is away from the click position
    3. If you click in the panning view, it will re-center and tell you the location of the cursor after re-centering.
  6. You may want to zoom in. A zoom of 16 – 128 is usually good for this activity (if you go much closer, it has to download new data.)
    1. To change the zoom, use the drop down menu at the top. 
    2. You can also zoom and re-center from the context menu (right click).
  7. Pick the area you actually think looks like you might want to land there. Record the name of this region from table 2, and the the coordinates from the left, right top and bottom of your area (the area may be much smaller than the full view) in table 3:


Left (long)

Right (long)

Top (lat)

Bottom (lat)
















  1. In the Layer Manager, Click the “Add New Layer” button, Select “Stamps” then “MOC Stamps”
  2. Enter the coordinates from table 3:
    1. Longitude (East) takes the left and right coordinates (in that order).
    2. Latitude (North) takes the top and bottom coordinates.
  3. Click OK (way down at the bottom). Rectangles should appear to show you what images are available in your area (some areas have a lot)
  4. Layer manager: processing Click and drag across your landing area to select the stamps that cover it. They should turn yellow to show they've been selected. Right-click and select “Render Selected MOC stamps”. This may take a few minutes to process. You can tell when it’s done by looking at the square in the layer manager: green for done, red for processing.
  5. If you have plenty of time and inclination, you may want to do other stamps.
  6. Record the site name and a brief description in table 4.









  1. Repeat the procedure starting with step 3 for your other two landing sites.
  2. Based on your observations, select a final site. Write a description of the site, including its name, location, and why it was chosen above the others.


If you have the time, you may wish to check out the MSL website about the landing site selection.  Were any of your chosen sites on the shortlist of sites for MSL? 

updated: 10/31/08 by SAM

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