In October, the joint ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars 2016 mission will land the Schiaparelli rover on the Red Planet. Here's where the probe is scheduled to land, and why researchers chose this particular area. The ellipse marks the spot. (Image: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
The 100 x 15km elliptical target is located within the Meridiani Planum region in the southern highlands of Mars near the equator. The primary goal of the mission -- a collaborative effort between the European Space agency and Roscosmos -- will be to test technologies for the second phase of ExoMars, and to search for evidence of biological and geologic activity on Mars.
This false colour perspective highlights the region's topological features. Red and white represent high altitude features, while blue and purple show lower terrain, such as the interiors of craters. (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
Mission planners chose this area because it's relatively flat and smooth, making it a relatively safe place for the Schiaparelli rover to land. But it's also interesting from a scientific perspective. Meridiani Planum appears to contain clay sediments and sulphates that likely formed in the presence of water. Photos from space also show a number of water-carved channels, particularly in the southern portions of the region.
Many of the craters in this region contain dune fields, along with dark deposits surrounding them. These features were likely shaped by wind and dust storms.
Schiaparelli's main task will be to show the feasibility of the technologies required for a safe landing on Mars, but the rover is also equipped with instruments that will be used to measure wind speed, humidity, pressure and temperature at the landing site. Schiaparelli will also take measurements of electric fields on Mars, and that could help scientists better understand the role of electric forces in dust lifting, a phenomenon that triggers dust storms.
On October 16, the Schiaparelli rover will separate from its mothership. Three days later, it will use its heat shield, a parachute, a propulsion system and a crushable structure to decelerate during its six-minute descent to the surface of the planet.
If Meridiani Planum sounds familiar, you might be thinking of NASA's Opportunity mission. This rover also landed within the ellipse near the Endurance crater 12 years ago, and it's been exploring the 22km-wide crater for the past five years.