The checklist for getting a spacecraft to Mars is daunting. Besides the getting there part, you also need to figure out where to go. SpaceX is working with NASA to find the first destinations for its Red Dragon spacecraft and future manned missions.

Folks at SpaceX and NASA are pouring over imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (via SpaceNews). During a recent presentation, SpaceX’s Paul Wooster touched on what the company wants in a landing site.

A location with large amounts of ice would be ideal for supporting human settlements. So would a spot near the Equator and at a low altitude to take advantage of better solar power and thermal conditions. But finding that combination is tricky. “It’s probably hard to find that along with ice,” Wooster said according to SpaceNews.

Instead, SpaceX is focusing on locations at latitudes less than 40 degrees from the Equator. Four regions look good, but one looks the most promising – Arcadia Planitia.

The name might seem familiar, but it’s not the same place Mark Watney was stranded in during The Martian. That was Acidalia Planitia. Here’s a map of Mars to give you a better lay of the land. Acidalia Planitia, that’s the one from The Martian, is located at the top middle. Arcadia Planitia, the region SpaceX is looking at, can be seen in the top left.

Mars map

Both share the Planitia name, which is Latin for plain.

SpaceX’s vision for Mars is ambitious. And they don’t plan to stick to one location on Mars. SpaceX is willing to go where the customer wants. “We’re quite open to making use of this platform to take various payloads to other locations as well,” Wooster added.

Sounds good, when are you leaving? SpaceX wanted to get to head to Mars next year, but the timing was a little too ambitious. One of the few obstacles SpaceX runs into. And timing is everything when going to Mars. You don’t just wake up one morning and start heading there. You have to wait for just the right time.

Launch windows to Mars open up for a short time every two years or so. That’s when the low-energy Hohmann transfer orbit windows go live. The last window was in Jan-Apr 2016. The next one is coming in Apr-May 2018. SpaceX is going to miss this one. After that, it’s 2020, 2022 and so on. SpaceX is now aiming for the 2020 window.

SpaceX will launch the Red Dragon spacecraft and aim it at where Mars will eventually be. Here’s a simple GIF from NASA showing how it works.

mars launch window

You can also have some fun calculating launch windows yourself at this NASA page.

Getting to Mars will be SpaceX’s most challenging feat yet. Getting a lander on the surface will be even harder. NASA is the only agency to get a lander on Mars and have it operate on the surface. The ESA recently tried with the Schiaparelli lander, but it crashed on impact. SpaceX will have its work cut out for them as they start making the trek to the Red Planet.

But I won’t doubt them. People did with landing rockets and look at how that turned out. Now, we just wait for 2020. At least, SpaceX will have plenty of time to figure out where they are heading.

Image credits: NASA

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