Don't judge a Mars mission by its landscape.
NASA's Mars rovers have sent back haunting images of rugged hills and ridges and rock-strewn fields. The space agency's next Mars visitor will have a lot less to look at it.
The InSight mission is scheduled to touch down on the red planet Nov. 26 and NASA is aiming for an intentionally dull-looking landing spot. Elysium Planitia is a lava plain located near the equator. It's relatively smooth and free of rocks that could upset the three-legged lander.
"If Elysium Planitia were a salad, it would consist of romaine lettuce and kale -- no dressing," InSight principal investigator Bruce Banerdt said in a news release Monday. "If it were an ice cream, it would be vanilla."
While NASA equates the landing spot to a stadium parking lot, the humdrum landscape is really the perfect place for InSight.
Unlike NASA's famous Opportunity and Curiosity missions, InSight isn't a rover capable of rolling around. It'll stay in one spot to investigate the interior of Mars, take its temperature and study potential "Marsquakes."
Elysium Planitia will provide plenty of sun for the lander's solar panels. It's also expected to be a good place for InSight's burrowing probe, which will need to dig down to 16 feet (5 meters) below the surface to measure the heat coming from Mars' interior.
InSight will be able to send back images of its surroundings, but the real science will take place out of sight. "The beauty of this mission is happening below the surface," says Banerdt.
Insight launched in early May and will be the latest mark of NASA's presence on the planet. The Curiosity rover is the only machine that's still functioning on the surface as the space agency continues to reach out to its silent Opportunity rover.
NASA turns 60: The space agency has taken humanity farther than anyone else, and it has plans to go further.
Taking It to Extremes: Mix insane situations -- erupting volcanoes, nuclear meltdowns, 30-foot waves -- with everyday tech. Here's what happens.