NASA says it's zeroing in on the Martian touchdown site for its InSight lander, which is scheduled to blast off one year from now. The top-rated landing site is in a flat, equatorial region known as Elysium Planitia.
"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," InSight's site selection leader, Matt Golombek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said Wednesday in a news release.
InSight is designed to study the Red Planet's seismic activity and interior heat flow. One of its instruments is a temperature probe that's supposed to hammer itself into Martian soil to a depth of 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 meters). For that reason, Golombek and his colleagues had to pick a site with penetrable soil rather than rocks. NASA determined that the targeted site fit the bill, based on data about temperature fluctuations from the Thermal Imaging System on the Mars Odyssey orbiter.
The target site is actually a target ellipse, measuring about 81 by 17 miles (130 by 27 kilometers), at 4 degrees north latitude and 136 degrees east longitude. NASA will continue to evaluate the site — and if it turns out to be unacceptable, the InSight team has three backup sites in Elysium Planitia to choose from.
InSight is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This would mark the first California launch of an interplanetary mission. The launch window is open from March 4 to March 30, 2016, and touchdown is set for Sept. 28, 2016. InSight is due to operate on Mars for at least two years. Mission cost is $425 million, not including launch expenses.