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The Politics Behind Choosing a Mars 2020 Landing Site



Although Columbia Hills performed poorly at the previous Landing Workshop, NASA's Sample Return Steering Committee felt that the potential for finding biosignatures there deserves its inclusion in the final process. "We are told again and again that the vote is not binding," said Steve Ruff, a professor at Arizona State University. "It's just an input in the process."

Ruff was on this steering committee, and he began the conversation about Columbia Hills, which included it in the final landing sites. He saw an "I (heart) Columbia Hills" button all week long.

The region used to be called Gusev Crater – and the name of the crater has not changed. But Ruff says the change of landing name to Columbia Hills was a strategic renaming. As Spirit has already crossed the Gusev crater, scientists believe that the spending of an estimated $ 2 billion, if much of the planet remains unexplored, would not fit in with an audience starving for discovery. Last year, the site's most ardent supporters ̵

1; including Ruff – decided to name the Gusev airfield under a different name – Columbia Hills – for the nearby mountains.

However, the new name has not been fully enforced for most of the meeting, the meeting still uses the two terms synonymously. Many of those present believed that this renaming was politically motivated – a trick to favor the preferred location. For a scientist who has built his career in a particular place, the desire to gather more data and delve deeper into the mysteries of this site is strong.

Despite the skepticism of many at the meeting, Ruff remains optimistic about the site's chances in the final selection and thought that his team's presentations had influenced some undecided voters. "We came up with a solid scientific case," he said.

Ray Arvidsen, a professor of planetary geology at Washington University in St. Louis, was one of the deputy leaders of Spirit, but is reluctant to return. "Gusev seems to be a gradual progression," said Arvidsen. "The broader question of knowing more about Mars is best served from another angle."

Intense Discussion

For the outsider, the whole workshop sometimes seemed antagonistic, but the participants had it I see it that way. "The intense-looking discussion comes from a place of excitement," said Tim Goudge, a post-doctoral student at the University of Texas-Austin. "It's a sign of a healthy scientific community."

All the scientists interviewed for this story agreed that the process, regardless of outcome, was important. After two and a half days, the participants have cast their votes. The highest rated option was a hybrid mission that traverses the 28 kilometers between Jezero and Midway and collects samples at both locations. While Spirit only covered 7.73km, Opportunity made it over 45km before NASA lost contact earlier this year. While both of these rovers were solar powered, Mars 2020, like Curiosity, will carry its own fuel in the form of radioactive plutonium, extending its potential lifetime.

The recommendations of the Community and the Scientific Committee will go up in the chain to NASA, which is expected to make a final announcement on the airfield by the end of the year. The new mission could not come at a better time for Mars scientists, as Opportunity is out of contact with the outside world, as planetary dust storms hit Mars in June. The curiosity is still strong, but already more than 1,500 days above the 668-day life.

"It's a huge community service to hold these workshops," said Goudge. "But I'm not jealous of those who make that decision."

By the time the rover lands on Mars in February 2021, all differences will be eliminated and the community will gather around the chosen location. "Almost everyone here believes that they are all great," said J. R. Skok, a scientist at the SETI Institute. "Wherever NASA commits, everyone will stand in line because they want to be part of it."


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