InSight selfie reveals drab, featureless plain – just what the doctor ordered

NASA’s InSight Mars landing, in an 11-frame mosaic, stars in the spacecraft’s first selfie from the surface of the red planet. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s InSight Mars lander, using a camera on the spacecraft’s robot arm, has snapped a series of 11 images allowing engineers to assemble a selfie showing the probe, solar wings extended, resting on a flat, obstruction-free plain – exactly the sort of landing site needed to meet the mission’s science objectives.

Another 52 images show a crescent of terrain directly in front of the spacecraft measuring 2-by-4 metres across. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are studying that terrain to find the best possible spots for the robot arm to place the mission’s two primary instruments.

The Seismic Experiment Interior Structure, provided by the French space agency, will listen for marsquakes and impacts, using seismic waves to build a 3D map of Mars’ interior. The other instrument, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe provided by the German Aerospace Agency, will measure temperatures across the interior.

Both must be set down on relatively smooth, level terrain to work properly and the area of Elysium Planitia where InSight landed clearly fits the mission requirements.

“The near-absence of rocks, hills and holes means it’ll be extremely safe for our instruments,” said InSight’s Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt. “This might seem like a pretty plain piece of ground if it weren’t on Mars, but we’re glad to see that.”

InSight landed on 26 November, touching down after a six-and-a-half-minute plunge through the martian atmosphere. Engineers plan to take several weeks characterising the landing site and rehearsing robot arm procedures before attempting to place the instruments on the surface early next year.