InSight team creates Martian rock garden, lander begins work
Using tools ranging from rakes and shovels to augmented reality headsets, engineers with NASA’s Mars InSight mission have built a Martian rock garden which recreates the lander’s new home on Mars. This allows engineers to practice placing science instrument on the surface using InSight’s Earth-bound twin – ForeSight.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) built the rock garden based on photos taken by InSight’s cameras. The team used rakes and shovels to shape a bed of gravel-like material called garnet, which is used to simulate Martian sand.
These Earth-based explorers were able to match the conditions at InSight’s landing sight by wearing Microsoft Hololens-augmented reality headsets which projected digital terrain models of the landing site on to the test bed. The perimeter of the area where the two science instruments would be place was marked with wooden blocks and precision cameras in the lab were used to measure each feature they intended to replicate.
Building the rock garden, which mimics every detail down to pebbles or rocks larger than one inch (2 centimeters) took about four hours. Fortunately, a mosaic image of the lander’s workspace released last week shows that the area is smooth and mostly rock-free.
“It’s great for the science we want to do,” said JPL’s Marleen Sundgaard, who is guiding the test-bed work. “It’s the flat parking lot the landing team promised us. You calculate the probability of rocks in the area and hope the odds are in your favor.”
NASA sent the commands for InSight to set down its seismometer to Mars on Tuesday, Dec. 18. In a few days, Sundgaard and her colleagues will be waiting to see the first images of their work being replicated on Mars.
The latest addition to NASA’s family of Martian explorers has been as busy as the crew managing it back on the ground has been. The 794 lbs (360 kg) lander was ordered to place the seismometer on Tuesday, Dec. 18, which it completed on the following day right in front of it. Given that the vehicle is stationary it can only move / place things within the length of its arm (5.367 feet, or 1.636 meters).
With this instrument in place scientists back on Earth should be able to gain a better understanding the “goings-on” inside the Red Planet by listening to how the planet moves.
“Seismometer deployment is as important as landing InSight on Mars,” said InSight Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt, also based at JPL. “The seismometer is the highest-priority instrument on InSight: We need it in order to complete about three-quarters of our science objectives.”
Video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.