The stationary Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander is scheduled to launch in March 2016 and land on Mars six months later.
It will touch down at one of four sites selected in August from a field of 22 candidates. All four semi-finalist spots lie near each other on an equatorial plain in an area of Mars called Elysium Planitia.
Scientists will focus two of NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter cameras on the semi-finalists in the coming months to gain data they will use to select the best of the four sites well before InSight is launched.
The mission will investigate processes that formed and shaped Mars and will help scientists better understand the evolution of our inner solar system’s rocky planets, including Earth.
All four potential sites are an ellipse measuring 81 miles (130 kilometers) from east to west and 17 miles (27 kilometers) from north to south. Engineers calculate the spacecraft will have a 99-percent chance of landing within that ellipse, if targeted for the center.
Elysium is one of three areas on Mars that meet two basic engineering constraints for InSight. One requirement is being close enough to the equator for the lander’s solar array to have adequate power at all times of the year.
Also, the elevation must be low enough to have sufficient atmosphere above the site for a safe landing. The spacecraft will use the atmosphere for deceleration during descent.
InSight also needs penetrable ground, so it can deploy a heat-flow probe that will hammer itself 3 yards to 5 yards into the surface to monitor heat coming from the planet’s interior.