California National Park is a favorite of NASA scientists

Stunning craters, a giant canyon, and lit-up sand dunes in red and pink hues punctuate the landscape. Severe weather leads to icy cold and dangerously hot temperatures. This strange world is not a place for humans.

This is not Mars but Death Valley National Park, one of the hottest and driest places in North America. The two are so strikingly similar that NASA has been using California’s unique national park as a stand-in for the Red Planet for decades, most recently as part of preparation for the probe’s successful landing in 2021.

NASA isn’t done experimenting in Death Valley either. The pioneering researchers plan to return soon.

Researchers tested key aspects of the Mars rover’s navigation systems in Death Valley. Here, NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars on February 18, 2021.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s work in Death Valley dates back to the 1970s and the groundbreaking Project Viking, the first American mission to land a spacecraft safely on Mars. Some of the first images the world has ever seen came of Mars [Viking],” Allen Chen of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told SFGATE in a phone interview. The national park is about five hours from JPL’s office in Pasadena.

Chen commanded the Mars landings for the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers and was part of several visits to Death Valley throughout his 20-year tenure with NASA.

“It’s a rite of passage for people working on Mars to find your way out into Death Valley for a reason,” he explained. “Whether it’s the scientists working on the rocks or whether it’s the engineering side or if you’re someone like me who worries about landing things, once you get past those stages, it’s about getting out there and doing extensive testing to prove to yourself that it will actually work when it lands on the rocks.” Mars “.

the work she did. Both rovers have been roaming the surface of Mars since their landings, and they’ve been reveling in stunning images as they carry out their missions.

But why Death Valley?

The national park that was used for scenes in “Star Wars” and “The Twilight Zone” is a “living laboratory” of sorts because of its quirky and dynamic features, according to Death Valley National Park ranger Matthew Lamarr.



“Here in Death Valley, we have a unique ability to help understand other worlds,” he said. The topography of the sea-level basin provides an excellent canvas for researchers, scientists, and other groups. “Because it’s so hot and so dry, we lack things like vegetation. And when you come here, you see the geology is exposed. That rocky terrain is there in many areas. Because of the volcanic activity here in Death Valley, it can be compared to the surface of Mars.” “.

The comparisons don’t stop at Mars. Lamarr added that icy worlds like the distant moons of Jupiter and Saturn could one day see spacecraft that have been tried and tested on the salt flats of Death Valley and at the Top of the Towering Telescope.

NASA tested the Perseverance rover's relative terrain navigation system in Death Valley.

NASA tested the Perseverance rover’s relative terrain navigation system in Death Valley.

Screenshot via NASA/JPL-Caltech

Chen cited the park’s “diversity” as the main reason researchers return again and again. “For me, what this talks about is the connection between our planets,” he said. “In the grand scheme of the universe, we’ve evolved very similar routes. We’re right next to each other. That’s kind of cool we can see a link between ourselves and another planet.”

This link includes the park’s sand dunes and the rim of the 3,000-square-mile canyon. Chen and his team used both sites to test the persistence rover Terrain relative navigation system In the years leading up to launch.

“[We flew over] He explained that the dunes try to see what they can do in repeating the terrain. “We flew it to the edge of the canyon as well so it could be challenged by the terrain. We wanted to make sure the navigation system relative to the terrain was put through its paces.”

As Chen described, testing followed by more testing is very important, as manual commands can take up to 20 minutes to reach the rover from NASA’s ground controller through space. This means that the rover should be able to go it alone when it comes to actually landing on Mars. “We have to make sure that everything can happen without our involvement,” he said. “We have to put the car in everything you can see here on Earth.”

There is no better place to do this than the aptly named Mars Hill, the site of countless NASA demonstrations over the years. The hill in the southeastern part of Death Valley is so similar to the surface of Mars that many researchers, including Chen, stay near Furnace Creek when they visit to conduct experiments.

Chen said the Curiosity rover was first tested on Mars Hill because of its similarity to the surface of Mars. Curiosity subsequently landed on Mars to worldwide acclaim in August 2012 and is still in existence today.

Curiosity captured this image of Paraitepuy Pass on Mars on September 9, 2015.

Curiosity captured this image of Paraitepuy Pass on Mars on September 9, 2015.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

As Death Valley continues to surprise and fascinate visitors with different kinds of landscapes, Chen said his team is testing the equipment at park sites outside Mars Hill as scientists aim to break down barriers and make new discoveries on the Red Planet.

“We’re really looking for different places to go on Mars now, which means we’re looking for different places in Death Valley. We’re looking for water.” [on Mars], the building blocks of life in terms of organic matter, and finally with sample returns. We have moved on from looking for volcanic places because they are not good places to find past life. We’ve kind of moved on from that kind of location.”

Outside of Death Valley, Chen pointed to the vast Mojave Desert as another challenging landscape that NASA is exploring for future use as it searches for more “soft” terrain and certain types of craters.

“Southern California and California in general has a whole range of terrain that is very similar to Mars,” he added. “The fact that it’s in our backyard is so relaxing.”

Test the Scarecrow rover on the dunes at the Dumont Dunes outside Death Valley National Park.

Test the Scarecrow rover on the dunes at the Dumont Dunes outside Death Valley National Park.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s not just NASA that uses Death Valley. Academic researchers and groups such as the SETI Institute—short for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence—are often spotted in the park. Although there is no observatory in Death Valley, the clarity with which you can see the night sky is simply amazing. For this reason it is recognized as a International Dark Sky ParkInc., one of several companies in the United States “possessing an exceptional or distinctive quality of Starry Nights.”

In terms of future plans, Chen told SFGATE that NASA will “definitely” return to Death Valley many times. “We’re always trying to push the envelope,” he said.

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