NASA has been working on a lander that is scheduled to land on Mars in November 2018. The InSight Lander, which looks like an oversized crane game, is intended for landing on the Martian surface, and its robotic arm is to be used to grasp and move objects on a different planet for the first time.
A replica of the NASA InSight Lander is at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California is currently being tested on and prepared for any scenario it might encounter on the Red Planet. JPL’s testbed for the lander sits on piles of crushed garnet, which simulates a mix of sand and gravel found on the Martian surface, with the added benefit of being dust-free, in a facility called the In-Situ Instrument Lab. The testbed’s legs are repositioned to test operations in an uneven landing area with up to 15 degrees of tilt to ensure that the lander is used to all types of surfaces since, after landing on Mars, it will need to stay very still and collect high-precision data without repositioning itself.
Three tools, formally called the Science Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS); the Wind and Thermal Shield (WTS); and the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3); are to be set down by the lander. These tools are essentially an ultra-sensitive seismometer; a shield that isolates the seismometer from wind and temperature swings; and a heat-flow probe. In order to ensure safe setting down of the tools, the engineers running their tests on the lander also pile garnets in the testbed’s “workspace”- the area in front of the lander.
One of the challenges the testers faces lies in the tethers that supply power to each science instrument, said Marleen Sundgaard of JPL, InSight’s testbed lead, with each tether unspooling as the arm lifts an instrument off the lander. Sundgaard says, “We have multiple places where we could put each instrument down. There are scenarios where the tethers would cross each other, so we need to make sure they don’t snag.”
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Besides conducting robotic operations, the testbed is also recreating Martian light, and special lights are being used to calibrate InSight’s cameras to allow it to adjust itself to the brightness and color of Martian sunlight. InSight is dedicated to exploring the deep interior of Mars, including its core and mantle, and the data collected by it might help scientists to understand how all rocky planets, like Mars and Earth, have been formed.
InSight is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California. The launch window opens on May 5.