Landing InSight on the surface of Mars was an incredible feat all by itself, but the robot has just successfully completed its first major mission milestone. After carefully surveying the nearby terrain, NASA pinpointed a location to deploy the lander’s Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). InSight successfully placed the sensor on the surface as instructed.
InSight set down on Mars in late November, but it couldn’t just play a game of claw machine to set down the dome-shaped SEIS package. Mars is too far away to control the lander’s robot arm in real time, so NASA engineers had to work out exactly where the instrument would go and map out exactly how InSight would deploy it with minimal risk.
NASA had to ensure the sensor made good contact with the ground. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to track the seismic activity beneath the surface. Luckily, InSight’s landing zone is very flat and free of debris. Still, the team constructed a model of the landing zone to confirm placement before sending instructions to the lander on December 18th. This is ahead of schedule based on the vague timeline NASA offered previously.
InSight placed the instrument about 5.3 feet (1.6 meters) away — about as far as the arm can reach. In the coming days, NASA will perform tiny adjustments to the SEIS package to get it perfectly level with the surface. It’s currently sitting on ground that it tilted by two or three degrees.
NASA’s InSight landing zone model.
NASA will start collecting data as soon as it’s in the right position, but there’s another step before SEIS is at full functionality. Engineers will check and possibly adjust the cable that tethers the seismometer to the rover to ensure there is no interference. In January, InSight will drop a wind shield over top of the sensor to make sure atmospheric conditions don’t affect the data.
Later in January, the team expects to deploy the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe (HP3). This instrument will drill into the surface of Mars about the same distance from the lander as SEIS but in a different direction. Once in position, HP3 will relay temperature data from the planet’s interior.
InSight is going to have a very busy 2019 as we get our first look inside Mars. You can expect plenty of news to come from this robot next year.
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