NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snaps images of some sweet vacation spots on the Red Planet.
SpaceX isn't kidding around about its Mars plans. Elon Musk's space company seems to have requested images of potential Mars landing sites from NASA .
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRise camera database includes a small group of images labeled as "Candidate landing site for SpaceX Starship."
Starship is SpaceX's next-generation spaceship. It's meant to service Earth orbit as well as the moon and eventually Mars. Starship is moving through a fairly rapid development process. SpaceX is currently building two orbital prototypes and just completed a successful short jump of its Starhopper prototype as a test of its Raptor engine.
Robert Zimmerman from the Behind the Black blog seems to be the first person to call attention to the NASA images. Mars-focused site humanMars.net picked it up with a post of its own on Sunday.
The HiRise image database is searchable by anyone. These SpaceX-related images likely came out in a recent August update. The MRO captured the images in June and July.
"Under direction from JPL [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory], the HiRISE team has been imaging candidate landing sites for SpaceX. This effort began in 2017, initially for the Red Dragon lander, and is continuing for their Starship vehicle," HiRise principal investigator Alfred McEwen told CNET. Red Dragon was the name of a concept lander for an uncrewed mission to Mars, but it was scrapped in favor of Starship.
While SpaceX may be years away from launching an actual Mars mission, it doesn't hurt to start scoping out possible landing sites. NASA begins its own evaluations way in advance before sending a lander or rover to the Red Planet.
NASA is focused on the moon right now as a jumping off point to Mars, but the space agency has already considered Mars locations for human exploration. A workshop group in 2015 proposed 47 possible landing spots.
SpaceX's HiRise images indicate the company is mainly interested in the Arcadia region of Mars, which has both volcanoes and large open plains. Starship would need a fairly smooth spot free of big rocks to touch down on. The MRO images show primarily flat areas that look like solid candidates for Starship.
"These sites are concentrated at low elevations in the northern middle latitudes, in places where there is evidence for shallow ground ice," McEwen said.
The emergence of these images isn't a surprise. We already knew SpaceX was thinking ahead about tempting Red Planet regions. It's fun to check out the images and imagine the shiny Starship lowering itself down to the surface of Mars in one of these places.
CNET reached out to SpaceX and the HiRise team at the University of Arizona for comment.
Originally published Sept. 1 at 6:55 p.m. PT
Updated Sept. 2 at 1:20 p.m. with McEwen interview.