NASA’s Mars InSight lander’s Robotic Arm is Ready for Lifting

New photos taken by NASA’s Mars InSight lander demonstrates its robotic arm is ready to do some lifting.

With a reach of almost 6 feet (2 meters), the arm will be used to pick up science instruments from the lander’s deck and gently placing them down on the Martian surface at Elysium Planitia, the lava plain where InSight landed on Nov. 26.

But before that, the arm will use its Instrument Deployment Camera, situated on its elbow, to capture images of the terrain in front of the lander. These photos will assist mission team members in figuring out where to set InSight’s seismometer and heat flow probe, the only tools ever to be robotically placed on the surface of another planet.

Bruce Banerdt, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, stated that by early next week, they’d be imaging their workspace in greater detail and creating a full mosaic.

Another camera, known as the Instrument Context Camera, is situated under the lander’s deck. It will also provide views of the workspace. However, this view won’t be as visually stunning.

Tom Hoffman of JPL, InSight’s project manager, explained the reason for that is even though they had a protective cover on the Instrument Context Camera, dust still managed to get onto the lens. Although this is unfortunate, it will not affect the role of the camera, which is to take photos of the area in front of the lander where their tools will eventually be placed.

Placement is essential, and the team is moving forward with caution. It could b two to three months before the instruments have been placed and calibrated.

During the past week and a half, mission engineers have been testing those tools and spacecraft systems, to certify that they’re working correctly. Two instruments are even recording data: a drop in air pressure, possibly a result of a passing dust devil, was identified by the pressure sensor. This, along with a magnetometer and a set of wind and temperature sensors, are part of a package known as the Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem, which will gather meteorological data.


More images from InSight’s arm were scheduled to be sent back to Earth this past weekend. But, imaging was momentarily interrupted and resumed the following day. During the first few weeks on Mars, InSight has been instructed to be extra cautious, so anything unexpected will prompt what’s called a fault. Considered routine, it causes the spacecraft to stop what it is doing and ask for help from operators on the ground.

Hoffman stated that faults are not unusual because even with the extensive testing performed on Earth everything is a little different for the lander on Mars. He added that faults could delay operations, but there’s no rush. The operators want to be sure that each process is conducted safely on Mars, so they set their safety monitors to be fairly sensitive at the beginning.

Spacecraft engineers already factored in extra time for their estimates for instrument deployment to account for potential delays caused by faults. The primary mission is slated to take place for two Earth years, or one Mars year, which is more than enough time to collect data from the Red Planet’s surface.

All photos courtesy of NASA Images.

Jessica Zeitz