MIT researchers have developed a software tool for computer-aided discovery that could help mission planners decide on a landing site for vehicles such as the Mars rovers.
The tool automatically produces maps of favourable landing sites, using the available data on Mars' geology and terrain, as well as a list of scientific priorities and engineering constraints that a user can specify.
This is something space mission operators are increasingly in need of, as selecting a landing site for a rover headed to Mars - for example - is a lengthy process that normally involves large committees of scientists and engineers.
These committees typically spend several years weighing a mission's science objectives against a vehicle's engineering constraints, to identify sites that are both scientifically interesting and safe to land on.
However, the new tool means that a user can stipulate that a rover should land in a site where it can explore certain geological targets, such as open-basin lakes. At the same time, they can make sure that the landing sites don't exceed a certain slope, otherwise the vehicle would topple over while attempting to land.
The programme then generates a 'favourability map' of sites that meet both constraints. These locations can shift and change as a user adds additional specifications.
The programme can also lay out possible paths that a rover can take from a given landing site to certain geological features. For instance, if a user specifies that a rover should explore sedimentary rock exposures, the program produces paths to any such nearby structures and calculates the time that it would take to reach them.
Victor Pankratius, principal research scientist in MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said mission planners can use the programme to quickly and efficiently consider different landing and exploratory scenarios.
"This is never going to replace the actual committee, but it can make things much more efficient, because you can play with different scenarios while you're talking," Pankratius said.
The team's study was published by Earth and Space Science journal.
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