SpaceX is already thinking about when its spacecraft will first touch down on the surface of Mars — either good planning or wishful thinking, depending on your perspective — working with NASA to ID and examine potential landing spots on the red planet.
The private space company’s Paul Wooster, who oversees Dragon guidance, navigation and control systems while also working on the company’s more high-level Mars plans, told a conference in Texas that SpaceX is working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to tag potential landings spots and study their viability. Already, they have identified one very strong candidate, according to SpaceNews.
What makes a good landing spot for a Mars spacecraft? Proximity to ice near the surface of the planet is a big one, because that’s going to be 🔑 to any settlement’s ability to maintain itself during long spells without support from Earth-based shipments. Another important factor is low elevation and positioning near the equator for better sun exposure, for both power and thermal conditions. Those don’t normally co-exist with large quantities of ice not far from the surface, so that has helped narrow the potential touchdown points to just a handful.
These Mars landing points assume compatibility with SpaceX’s long-term goal of going to Mars and staying there, but the company could also land elsewhere on the planet to satisfy other needs, for scientific and commercial clients, for example.
For SpaceX, Mars is still a relatively distant target — its planned first launch to the red planet was originally slated for 2018, but it’s now much more likely to occur in mid-2020 at the earliest, according to the company. At least it looks like that first mission will know exactly where it’s headed long in advance.