Three years from now, NASA will launch another rover to Mars, where it will scour the surface for traces of ancient life, signs that the planet may have once been habitable. Around the same time, if Elon Musk meets his deadline, SpaceX will send the first commercial spacecraft to land on the planet. About a decade later, humans might arrive, ready to open a new chapter in human history.
But where are we going, exactly, when we say we’re going to Mars?
Scientists and engineers can spend years poring over images and other data to determine the best landing site for a spacecraft—and rightfully so. Once you’ve sent a very, very expensive hunk of metal somewhere millions of miles away, you only have one shot at getting it on the ground in one piece. Only one country, the United States, has successfully landed something on Mars. With stakes that high, potential landing sites must be scrutinized down to the tiniest details.
That’s where Matt Golombek comes in. Golombek is a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, or, as he calls himself, “the landing site guy.” Golombek has spent 20 years identifying, evaluating, and helping select sites for Mars missions, starting with the Pathfinder, which delivered the first successful rover, Sojourner, to the Red Planet in 1997. He has constructed dozens and dozens of maps of Mars, pinpointing rocks, slopes, mineral compositions, and other attributes for engineers to use in simulations. Golombek is currently leading the effort to pick a landing site for the Mars 2020, an unnamed NASA rover set for launch in 2020. The rover will be equipped with tools designed to drill and collect samples of rock and soil on the surface, where they'll wait for a future mission to bring them back. He’s also helping SpaceX engineers choose a site for the Red Dragon spacecraft, scheduled to leave Earth the same year, and a potential human journey.