Mars Lander InSight Has Four Potential Targets
September 4, 2013

Mars Lander InSight Has Four Potential Targets

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

NASA has dwindled down its list for potential landing sites for its next Mars lander mission down to four possibilities.

The space agency's stationary Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander mission will be launching in March 2016 and landing on the Red Planet six months later. NASA said it has narrowed its list of 22 possible landing spots down to four sites. All four of the spots lie near each other on an equatorial plain in an area of Mars known as Elysium Planitia.

"We picked four sites that look safest," said geologist Matt Golombek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They have mostly smooth terrain, few rocks and very little slope."

NASA will be using its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter cameras on the four potential landing spots in order to gather some more data about which of the sites best suits the InSight mission.

InSight will be investigating processes that formed and shaped Mars and will help scientists understand the evolution of our inner solar system's rocky planet.

"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."

Each of the potential sites is an ellipse measuring 81 miles from east to west and 17 miles from north to south. Engineers believe the spacecraft will have a 99-percent chance of landing within that ellipse, if targeted for the center.

Elysium Planitia is one of three areas on Mars that meets two basic engineering constraints for the InSight mission, one of which is being close enough to the equator for the lander's solar array to have power throughout the year. Another requirement is for elevation to be low enough to have sufficient atmosphere above the site for a safe landing.

Upon landing, InSight will be deploying a heat-flow probe that will hammer itself three to five yards into the surface of Mars in order to monitor heat coming from the planet's interior. This tool will be able to penetrate through broken-up surface material, but could be foiled by solid bedrock or large rocks.

"For this mission, we needed to look below the surface to evaluate candidate landing sites," Golombek said.

NASA is also planning a 2020 Mars rover mission, which will be looking for signs of past life on the Red Planet. According to a 154-page document released in July, this rover will be collecting samples to potentially return to Earth, as well as demonstrate technology for future human exploration missions to Mars.