MER (Mars Exploration Rover) Landing Site Selection

Eric B. Grosfils
Geology Department, Pomona College
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Via a jigsaw role-playing exercise in which students become geologists, astrobiologists and engineers, real data and available constrains are used to identify landing sites for the MER rovers. A debate format is then used to select two landing sites. NOTE: a similar exercise can be developed for future missions.

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Introductory Physical Geology course

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

I use this as the final lab for my course, and the more students know about Mars before beginning the lab the better, but no explicit knowledge other than what gets provided within the lab is required -- except that students must be able to interpret image and topography data.

How the activity is situated in the course


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Understand the broad array of factors that constrain the formulation of NASA lander missions, and how difficult they are to meet.
  • Discover that, in spite of these difficulties, incredible opportunities for science can be pursued.
  • At a very basic level, learn about the ingredients viewed as necessary to initiate and preserve life.
  • Identify directions for future technology development to improve flexibility of future missions, and compare with what is actually being done.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Analysis of different kinds of image data and topography
  • Synthesis of multiple datasets and integration of systems of competing constraints

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Scientific learning via debate and discussion.

Description of the activity/assignment

  • In this lab students will explore first hand what sorts of processes occur when scientists and engineers try to identify a landing site for a mission to Mars. This will mimic the process used to select the MER rover landing sites, and what will be used for future missions. First, students briefly become a planetary geologist, engineer or astrobiologist. Second, from the point of view the students feel is appropriate for their new position, and using the same constraints employed by the scientific teams preparing for forthcoming Mars missions, students will identify their top list of candidate landing sites and submit a short report describing them to me by the following class period. Third, in the following class period, all three groups of experts will work together to narrow down the site selection to a top candidate. Where would you send the next lander if the choice was up to you?
  • Each student group, constituted randomly, is provided with the appropriate role-playing sheet from the lab assignment.

Determining whether students have met the goals

  • Written submission -- each person in the group should write up one of the landing site choices, and there should be no overlap within the group. Each person will be graded solely on the basis of what they have written, so this part must be an individual effort and it is important that the group members work together to ensure that each person has a site to write up with which they are comfortable. This should be easy if everyone participates actively in the group discussion and selection process! I'm expecting your write up (not including figures) will be on the order of 2 pages or so, carefully organized and written properly, i.e. adhering to proper grammatical and spelling rules with writing and flow that is clear, direct and concise—I'll be grading these aspects of the report as well as its technical components! The logic and support for the argument presented are the key components evaluated.

  • Debate -- collectively, the goal of the students during class is to hold a productive discussion which cleanly and analytically narrows NASA's choice for a landing site down to one, possibly with a runner up; a panel of three students, one from each team, makes the final decision based on the discussion/debate. The class as a whole will receive a single grade for this discussion, which will be awarded on the basis of criteria such as:
    • Did you use the information at your disposal properly, effectively, and convincingly?
    • Did you all work together to resolve any conflicts of criteria which occur?
    • Did you argue your position effectively yet keep an open mind?
    • Did you come up with a well supported argument as a group for the final landing site you selected?
    • Did everyone participate and contribute in a meaningful fashion?

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