Next Mars landing site narrowed down to four possible locations

Artist's conception of the InSight lander on Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of the InSight lander on Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The potential landing site for NASA’s next Mars mission, InSight, has now been narrowed down to four locations. All four are close to each other in the Elysium Planitia region, a large plain near the Martian equator. The four locations were narrowed down from an initial list of 22 candidates.

InSight is scheduled to be launched in March 2016, landing six months later.

Unlike other recent surface missions on Mars, the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander is just that, a stationary lander instead of a rover. Rather than exploring surface features, it will focus on studying Mars’ interior, to help scientists better understand what Mars is like deep underground, down to its core. This will also assist in the understanding of how smaller rocky planets like Mars and Earth formed.

The final location will be chosen primarily for safety concerns and mission potential, not scenic views. According to geologist Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, “We picked four sites that look safest. They have mostly smooth terrain, few rocks and very little slope.”

“This mission’s science goals are not related to any specific location on Mars because we’re studying the planet as a whole, down to its core,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator at JPL. “Mission safety and survival are what drive our criteria for a landing site.”

Elysium Planitia was chosen as the ideal region for a successful landing and mission. It is close to the equator, where there is plenty of sunlight for the lander’s solar arrays (similar to those of Phoenix, Opportunity and Spirit). The low elevation also provides enough air above the landing site for a safe touchdown, necessary in Mars’ thin atmosphere.

A heat-flow probe will penetrate about (3-5 yards) into the ground, which will be able to measure the amount of heat coming from the planet’s interior. A seismometer will also look for any movement down below, ie. Mars quakes. The information obtained by these and other instruments will hopefully provide evidence as to whether or not Mars is still geologically active below the surface.

More information about the InSight mission is available here.

Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy. He currently writes for AmericaSpace, Universe Today and His own blog The Meridiani Journal is a chronicle of planetary exploration.
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