360 Video: Tour a Mars Robot Test Lab

NASA’s InSight
looks a bit like an oversized crane game: when it
lands on Mars this
November, its robotic arm will be used to
grasp and move objects on another
planet for the first time.

And like any crane game, practice makes it easier to
the prize.

Engineers and scientists have a replica of InSight at
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. They use
this testbed
to simulate all the functions of the spacecraft,
preparing for any scenario it
might meet once it touches down
on the Red Planet.

InSight is unique in that it’s a lander rather than a
once it touches down, it can’t reposition itself. Its job is to
very still and collect high-precision data. JPL’s testbed
for the lander sits
on piles of crushed garnet in a facility
called the In-Situ Instrument Lab. This
garnet simulates a mix
of sand and gravel found on the Martian surface but has
benefit of being dust-free. The testbed’s legs are raised or
lowered to
test operations in an uneven landing area with up
to 15 degrees of tilt.

Engineers also pile garnet at different tilts in the
“workspace” — the area in front of the lander where it
setting down three
science tools
: an ultra-sensitive seismometer; a shield
that isolates the
seismometer from wind and temperature
swings; and a heat-flow probe. These
three objects are
formally called the Science Experiment for Interior Structure
(SEIS); the Wind and Thermal Shield (WTS); and the Heat Flow
and Physical
Properties Probe (HP3).

All this practice ensures InSight can set these objects
safely no matter what surprises its landing site has in store.

One challenge lies in the tethers that supply power to
science instrument, said Marleen Sundgaard of JPL, InSight’s
testbed lead.
Each tether unspools as the arm lifts an
instrument off the lander.

“We have multiple places where we could put each
down,” Sundgaard said. “There are scenarios where the
would cross each other, so we need to make sure they don’t

Besides robotic operations, the testbed has to recreate
Martian light. Special lights are also used to calibrate
InSight’s cameras to
the brightness and color of Martian

All this practice should pay off with some incredible new
science. InSight will be the first mission dedicated to
exploring the deep
interior of Mars, including its core and
mantle. The data it collects could
help scientists understand
how all rocky planets — including Mars and Earth —

InSight will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in
California. The launch window opens on May 5.

For more information about
InSight, go to:


News Media Contact

Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


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