At T-minus one year to blastoff, the landing region for NASA’s next mission to Mars has been narrowed down to one specific site near the equator as the best place to land the InSight lander and its suite of science instruments on an unprecedented mission to investigate the Red Planet’s deep interior and sense for “Marsquakes.”
InSight, which stands for “Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport,” is a stationary lander—in contrast to NASA’s ongoing Curiosity and Opportunity mobile rovers.
The landing site is located in an elliptically shaped area within the northern portion of flat-lying terrain at “Elysium Planitia,” some four degrees north of Mars’ equator, and a bit north of the Curiosity rover.
The carefully chosen region is judged to be both a safe and scientifically interesting area for InSight to set down in September 2016.
The launch window for InSight opens March 4 and runs through March 30, 2016.
InSight will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. This marks NASA’s first-ever interplanetary mission to launch from California.
The final landing region was downselected from a list of four candidate locations, all inside Elysium Planitia, that initially passed the prior screening review in 2014.
Among the key criteria are that the area had to be flat with a minimal quantity of rocks that could endanger the probe’s delicate landing, even in the final few feet (meter) of the nail-biting descent to the Red Planet’s surface.
Touchdown is slated for Sept. 28, 2016, regardless of which day the probe lifts off during the launch window next March.
The InSight landing site selection team was led by Matt Golombek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
“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 site-selection leader, Matt Golombek, in a statement.
Between now and later this year, the team will continue to evaluate the chosen landing region to pick the best possible final site.
“The favored site is centered at about four degrees north latitude and 136 degrees east longitude,” says NASA.
Detailed photographic and spectroscopic observations from two of NASA’s still well-functioning Red Planet orbiters—Mars Odyssey (MO) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)—were essential to choosing the best landing site.
MO and MRO instruments are mapping the candidate landing ellipses in detail which measure about 81 miles (130 kilometers) west-to-east by about 17 miles (27 kilometers) north-to-south.
And it needs to be noted and emphasized that Mars Odyssey is the very same orbiter that the White House decided to “zero out” in the FY 2016 budget, (along with Opportunity and LRO). Despite the fact that it’s still playing an essential role in safely landing expensive and “priceless” American hardware on the Red Planet!!
NASA says the ellipses have “odds of about 99 percent of landing, if targeted for the ellipse center. Several types of terrain, such as ‘cratered,’ ‘etched’ and ‘smooth’ were mapped in each ellipse. The one chosen for final evaluations has highest proportion in the smooth category.”
InSight is an international science mission and a near duplicate of NASA’s successful Phoenix Mars landing spacecraft, Bruce Banerdt, InSight Principal Investigator of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., told AmericaSpace.
It is funded by NASA’s Discovery Program as well as several European national space agencies and countries. Germany and France are providing InSight’s two main science instruments: HP3 and SEIS through the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).
“InSight is essentially built from scratch, but nearly build-to-print from the Phoenix design,” Banerdt told AmericaSpace. The team can keep costs down by re-using the blueprints pioneered by Phoenix instead of creating an entirely new spacecraft.
“The robotic arm is similar (but not identical) to the Phoenix arm,” Banerdt explained.
The arm will be used to pick up and deploy the DLR- and CNES-provided science instruments from the lander deck onto the surface.
InSight’s science focus is different from NASA’s earlier landers and rovers. The science is focused on studying the subsurface interior of Mars, rather than investigating the surface.
“The seismometer (SEIS, stands for Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure) is from France (built by CNES and IPGP) and the heat flow probe (HP3, stands for Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe) is from Germany (built by DLR),” Banerdt explained.
The prime contractor for InSight is Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colo.
The Denver assembly team has been given the “thumbs up” to install the science instrument hardware onto InSight and for “integration and testing of the mission’s component systems” from the international science partners.
Components of the heat-flow probe of HP3 provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) were the first to be intergrated onto InSight.
“As flight components such as the HP3 electronics become available, our team continues to integrate them on the spacecraft and test their functionality,” said Stu Spath, InSight spacecraft program manager at Lockheed Martin.
“We’re steadily marching toward the start of spacecraft environmental testing this spring.”
Another key criteria for landing site selection is that the ground at touchdown must be penetrable for the heat-flow probe, which is designed to hammer itself into the soil to a depth three to five meters (yards)—the deepest hole ever mined on Mars—with a self hammering “mole.”
HP3 will measure heat emanating from the interior. The seismometer will measure waves from the interior including “Marsquakes.”
A radio science experiment seeks to determine if Mars has a molten or solid core by using a radio link between InSight and NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas on Earth to measure precisely a wobble in Mars’ rotation.
InSight’s purpose is to answer one of science’s most fundamental questions: How were the planets created?
Scientists hope to unveil the nature of the mysterious deep interior and central core of the Red Planet.
InSight will penetrate far deeper than Phoenix in order to investigate how Earth-like planets formed and developed their layered inner structure of core, mantle, and crust by deploying these never-before-used instruments onto the Martian surface to collect information about those interior zones.
Stay tuned here for continuing updates from Mars and throughout our Solar System!
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