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NASA picks four possible Mars landing sites, none of them interesting

NASA has whittled to four the number of potential landing sites for its 2016 mission to Mars to four featureless plots, to ensure a safe touchdown for its InSight lander, which will probe the Red Planet's interior.

By Contributor / September 5, 2013

NASA has selected four semi-finalist landing plots for its 2016 mission to Mars.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA has whittled to four the number of potential landing sites for its 2016 mission to Mars. All of the “semifinalists,” as the agency puts it, are un-interesting, featureless plots.

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NASA’s next mission to Mars is scheduled to land on the planet in August 2016, six months after its launch from Earth. Called the Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport lander – or, more succinctly, InSight – the stationary lander will tuck into Mars’s underground to investigate the Red Planet’s interior and its formation some 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists hope that plumbing beneath Mars’s surface will help in explaining the processes that formed Earth, as well as the exoplanets popping up in new portraits of the universe.

Choosing a landing ground for InSight is much simpler than choosing one for a Mars rover, said Matthew Golombek, a geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Rovers must be put down near the features they’ve been outfitted to research, which means that the crafts have been deposited next to interesting plains or mountains. But InSight is designed to research Mars’s interior, which, conveniently, is accessible all over the planet, as long as the surface is soft enough to penetrate.

“When you land a rover, it’s designed to measure certain things, so you have to make sure those things are available,” says Dr. Golombek. “Here, there are no real scientific requirements. That makes the job dramatically easier.”

Still, there are some conditions that a plausible landing spot must meet. The four landing-site candidates, selected from an initial roster of 22 potential plots of real estate, are all in Mars’s Elysium Planitia, an equatorial plain named for the ancient Greeks’ heroic afterlife.

That region, about 500 miles southward from Curiosity’s touchdown spot, is near enough to the equator to protect landers from the cold closer to the poles, as well as primed to power the InSight’s solar array throughout the year. The region is also low enough in elevation to have the requisite atmosphere to decelerate the craft and, NASA hopes, land it without incident.

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