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Someone found out NASA is helping SpaceX figure out where to land its Starship on Mars

By Elizabeth Rayne
Mars surface

When all you’re doing is sipping your morning coffee and looking at data from a Mars orbiter, you probably don’t expect to come across something.

It recently happened to Robert Zimmerman, a science writer and voice of the blog Behind the Black, when he was checking out newly released images from HiRISE, the super-high-res camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). He accidentally came across several images with areas labeled Candidate Landing Site for SpaceX Starship. Wait. Neither NASA nor SpaceX ever said anything about this.

Seems the space agency and Elon Musk’s commercial space behemoth had been planning this under the radar until now. If you look at this HiRISE overview map that Zimmerman edited for clarity, it shows five potential landing sites in the Arcadia region of Mars. He had zero luck trying to get any further information out of NASA or SpaceX. Nathan Williams, the JPL scientist who Zimmerman found out requested these images from SpaceX, is under a non-disclosure agreement. SpaceX just didn’t respond.

Potential SpaceX Starship landing site

That might make what Zimmerman unearthed even more intriguing than it already is.

“Based on what we now know of Mars … it is possible to figure why they favor this location, on the border between the two large northern lowland plains Arcadia and Amazonis Planitia,” he wrote on his blog.

Mars is believed to be hiding underground glaciers. These subsurface expanses of ice are called lobate debris aprons. Erebus Montes, the first site NASA and SpaceX are eyeing, exhibits glacial erosion and is supposedly full of them. Any glaciers beneath the surface of the other sites that are not lobate aprons take the form of concentric crater glaciers.

So why land a ginormous spacecraft in a place that is pretty much one huge expanse of buried ice? The climate at the particular location is a huge bonus, because the temperatures on Mars are not so extreme at 40 degrees latitude, where all the sites are located. Ice means water, and water means not only life support but essential rocket fuel when split into its hydrogen and oxygen components. While we don’t know if hypothetical Martian microbes need water, our species definitely does.

The candidate landing sites are also low-altitude, with higher air pressure that helps protect from killer radiation, and relatively flat, which will make it that much safer and easier to land. SpaceX may be touching down there sooner than you think if you know anything about Elon Musk’s ambition. Starship might blast off to Mars as early as 2022. We won’t even be ready to return to the moon by then.

While it does seem highly unlikely that we’re going to leave bootprints on Mars in just a few years, you never know when it comes to SpaceX.

(via Behind the Black)