Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Monday completed a training exercise to prepare them for an exploration of Mars that they hope will bring them closer to answering questions about life on that planet. About 60 researchers from JPL, mostly field geologists, honed their skills in operating a Mars rover vehicle by using it to investigate the terrain of an undisclosed desert location somewhere in the American Southwest. To simulate conditions of controlling the rover on Mars, the specific site of the experiment was kept secret and the science team, which remotely guides the rover, was only allowed to make command decisions based on information received from the vehicle.
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Where would you stake your claim on the great desert planet? Oliver Morton, author of the new book Mapping Mars, asks the experts. Choosing a place to land on Mars should be easy. The planet’s surface area is as great as that of all Earth’s continents combined, and thanks to 30 years of space missions, it has been mapped in bewitching detail. Unfortunately, spacecraft are delicate constructions, and finding a safe spot to land them on rocky ground is a colossal headache. NASA researchers have been nursing that headache for years as they analyze hundreds of sites, trying to decide where a pair of rovers should arrive for a Mars mission in early 2004. Just as they were to make their final choices this spring, new wind modeling data sent the scientists back to their databases. But what if you weren’t constrained by engineering and treacherous terrain? What if you didn’t have to worry about rocks that would gut your lander’s belly, or slopes it would roll down, or those pesky winds? What if you could simply choose any one of the 1,470 places on Mars that now have a name