NASA selected the Elysium Planitia region of the Red Planet as the landing site for its InSight lander –an 81-mile long, 17-mile-wide (130-kilometer-long, 27-kilometer-wide) landing ellipse on the western edge of a flat, smooth expanse of lava plain. The site-selection team focused on a band around the equator, where the lander’s solar array would have adequate sunlight to power its systems year-round and be safe enough for InSight to land and then deploy its solar panels and instruments without obstructions.
The View from Space
The powerful HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Experiment) camera which takes pictures that cover vast areas of Martian terrain while being able to see features as small as a kitchen table, has been monitoring InSight’s landing site in the Elysium Planitia region of the Red Planet for changes to the surface, such as dust-devil tracks. Taken on Sept. 23, 2019, at an altitude of 169 miles (272 kilometers) above the surface, the new image is NASA’s best view yet of InSight from space. It clearly shows the two circular solar panels on either side of the lander body, spanning 20 feet (six meters) from end to end.
The bright spot on the lower side of the spacecraft is the dome-shaped protective cover over InSight’s seismometer. The dark halo surrounding the spacecraft resulted from retrorocket thrusters scouring the surface during landing, while dust devils created the dark streaks that run diagonally across the surface.
A Crisp Image
Several factors make this image crisper than a set of images released after InSight’s November 2018 landing. For one thing, there’s less dust in the air this time. Shadows are offset from the lander because this is an oblique view looking west. The lighting was also optimal for avoiding the bright reflections from the lander or its solar panels that have obscured surrounding pixels in other images. However, bright reflections are unavoidable with the seismometer cover just south of the lander because of its dome shape.
HiRISE has also been keeping tabs on NASA’s Curiosity, which is roughly 373 miles (600 kilometers) from InSight, exploring a region called “the clay-bearing unit.”
The GIF released above shows Curiosity as a gray speck as it traveled 1,106 feet (337 meters) from a location within the clay-bearing unit called “Woodland Bay” (top center) to “Sandside Harbour” (bottom center, near the dark sand patch) between May 31 and July 20, 2019.
Look carefully and you can see the rover’s tracks arcing to the right side of the second image.
The Daily Galaxy, Jake Burba, via Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Image credits: Caltech/JPL