SpaceX has requested images of probable landing locations for its giant Starship spacecraft from NASA as part of an early planning stage for its future Mars-bound missions.
Searchable and accessible to all, the photos in the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRise database indicate that SpaceX is looking for relatively flat, warm, and hazard-free landing sites for its upcoming launch vehicle, called Starship.
Making the story more legitimate, some of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRise photos includes a small group of images labeled as “Candidate landing site for SpaceX Starship.”
These photos of the candidate sites were captured from orbit by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in June and July and included in last month’s roundup of MRO imagery. These SpaceX-related images likely came out in a recent August update.
In particular, SpaceX is asking NASA for help in order to determine the best locations for a Mars landing since the space agency has already a list of considered Mars locations for human exploration. A workshop group in 2015 have previously proposed 47 possible landing spots.
HiRISE, on the other hand, is a telescope operated by the University of Arizona that’s mounted on the MRO spacecraft. The telescope’s camera can photograph surface features at a resolution as excellent as one foot per pixel — three times greater resolution than Google Maps provides of Earth, and on par with spy satellites.
However, since HiRISE can only take so many sizable images per orbit and beam them tens of millions of miles back to Earth, scientists must file image requests for locations of interest to them months in advance.
Based on the photos found on the HiRise database, SpaceX is looking to land its Starship spacecraft at the Arcadia Planitia and Amazonis Planitia locations, which has both volcanoes and broad open plains.
Generally, it would be an ideal decision that Starship would choose a reasonably smooth surface and is also boulder or obstacle-free for landing. The MRO images show primarily flat areas that look like reliable candidates for Starship.
Most significantly, these are regions where deposits of water ice are suspected to be deposited and may be buried under just a bit of red dirt and thus accessible to robots and people. Such a resource might be mined, melted, and turned into precious supplies such as water, air, and rocket fuel, which will become vital if Elon Musk — SpaceX founder — wants to establish a colony on the Red Planet.
Meanwhile, another focus of NASA’s reconnaissance campaign in Phlegra Montes, a mountainous area just west of Arcadia Planitia in Mars’ northern hemisphere can also be seen as a probable location that SpaceX is considering.
Science writer Robert Zimmerman brought the Arcadia-Amazonis sites to light last week on his Behind the Black blog and dubbed them Site 1, Site 2, Site 3, Site 4, and Site 5.
Notably, all of the Starship image requests were filed by Nathan R. Williams, a planetary geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
In the total 18 different images of Mars that Williams requested for Starship, it can be seen on the database that Sites 2 and 3 are a stereo pair of images. The other three sites on Zimmerman’s list have stereo pairs as well.
Specifically, he asked for two images each per site — each from a slightly different angle — to build stereo anaglyphs pairs. Such pairs can reveal finer 3D details about a location, including its terrain and landing hazards.
Williams has previously requested dozens of images in support of NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission, which just recently successfully attached the first helicopter to be sent in space.
Although Zimmerman first wrote about the story, it was Mars-focused outlet humanMars.net who broke the story with the Tweet: “Images labeled “Candidate Landing Site for SpaceX #Starship in Arcadia Region were found in latest data release from @HiRISE.”
“It means @SpaceX is already quietly evaluating the best place where to land first Starships on #Mars.”
Currently, SpaceX is developing the towering Starship, which is a two-stage rocket ship that will land 150 tons and up to 100 people at a time on Mars.
Today’s report follows after the heels of the successful and highest flight demonstration of the Starship prototype, Starhopper, and its powerful Raptor engine.
Tentatively, the first mission for Starship flights to the Red Planet will start in the mid-2020s.