NASA’s next mission to Mars, scheduled to launch one year from today to examine the Red Planet’s deep interior and investigate how rocky planets like Earth evolved, now has one specific site under evaluation as the best place to land and deploy its science instruments.
The mission called InSight — an acronym for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport” — is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The launch period runs from March 4 to March 30, 2016, and will mark the first California launch of an interplanetary mission. Installation of science-instrument hardware onto the spacecraft has begun and a key review has given thumbs up to integration and testing of the mission’s component systems from several nations participating in the international project.
The landing-site selection process evaluated four candidate locations selected in 2014. The quartet is within the flat-lying “Elysium Planitia,” less than five degrees north of the equator, and all four appear safe for InSight’s landing. The single site will continue to be analyzed in coming months for final selection later this year. If unexpected problems with this site are found, one of the others would be imaged and could be selected. The favored site is centered at about four degrees north latitude and 136 degrees east longitude.
“This is wondrous terrain, exactly what we want to land on because it is smooth, flat, with very few rocks in the highest-resolution images,” said InSight’s site-selection leader, Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.