How NASA’s InSight lander revolutionized robotics in space.

Watch the video version of the article here

Nasa’s insight lander landed on Mars a couple of days ago (Nov 26, 2018) after a 458 million km, 7 month journey. The technical prowess of executing such a mission is incredible, however, I want to share some of the robotics innovations that enabled this mission.

A fantastic overview of InSight's instruments and electronics
A fantastic overview of InSight’s instruments and electronics

Robotic Arm

The Lander uses a robotic arm to pick and place instruments, samples, etc. The arm is called the IDA- (Instrument Deployment Arm). The arm is 1.8 meters long, and uses cameras at the end of its grapple attachment to more precisely pick up and drop parts. 

Robotic arm nasa insight lander
Insight lander’s robotic arm

The arm uses 4 motors that enable it 3 degrees of freedom, similar to what a servo motor does. The camera enables extra precision while picking instruments since accidentally dropping a instrument/sensor due to loose grip will be unbelievably costly.

The robotic arm is responsible for deploying 2 of the lander’s main instruments/sensors- 1. Seismometer 2. Heat-Flow Probe

InSight’s Instrument/Sensor Cluster

1. Seismometer

Akin to sensors on the robots we use day to day, the instrument cluster on the bot are used measure data points from the robot’s environment and react accordingly.

The first sensor that the lander uses is a seismometer. A seismometer is an instrument used to measure any sort of vibrations and movement. 

Insight lander seismometer
Insight lander seismometer

The InSight lander uses the seismometer to measure “the pulse of Mars by studying waves created by marsquakes (earthquakes on mars), meteor impacts, and other surface vibrations created by the atmosphere and weather phenomenon” . The seismometer will basically study the kind of weather and conditions of mars. Such data is imperative to building settlements on Mars especially in terms of the kinds of forces our structures will have to be able to withstand. 

2. Heat Probe

The second sensor is a mini soil-drilling robot. Officially titled the ‘Heat Probe’, the robot will spend many days drilling 5 meters into the ground. This will be the deepest we’ve ever dug on any planet outside of earth. 

Insight lander heat probe
Insight lander heat probe

The drilling instrument is called the ‘mole penetrator’. Similar to hammer drills, this robot will hammer itself as it rotates to aid in drilling. This robot drill is far more sophisticated than your hammer drill, however. Made to measure temperature, the drill has a myriad of temperature sensors that are accurate to one millionth of a milli-kelvin. These are far more accurate than the temperature sensors we use in our A-Z Robotics on MicroBit Course. As the robot drills further into the martian ground, the drill also unwinds a ribbon of sensors behind it. The ribbon of sensors are also filled with temperature sensors to see variations in temperature in relation to the depth of martian soil. What’s brilliant is how the lander measures how deep the drilling robot is. The ribbon that is undwinded has an optical key printed on the side of the ribbon. As it unwinds, a light sensor can read these markings and determine not only the rate at which the drill robot is drilling (ribbon is being unwound), but also how much the drill has already dug (how much ribbon is unwound). 

What’s really clever about the drilling robot is that it can even detect when its creating frictional heat from drilling, and appropriately pause to let the heat dissipate and not affect the temperature sensor’s readings. Lastly, the mole penetrator (Drill part of the robot) has a heating element that can generate its own heat and, using the ribbon of temperature sensors linking it to main lander, measure the thermal conductivity of the soil. Using this data, researchers on earth can determine the thermal conductivity of the martian soil and its chemical composition. Such data is crucial to us building our own civilization and more advanced robots fit for long term habitation on Mars.

What this means for robotics and tech

The InSight Lander might not be as exciting as the moving opportunity which is over 15 years old or nuclear powered Opportunity rover, nonetheless, the sensors and robotics innovations introduced with the InSight lander will be revolutionary for man’s first trip to mars.

Do you want to build your own robotic lander? If you want to learn how electronics found in the InSight lander such as the light sensor, temperature sensor, servo motors work, how to wire them, write code to interface with them, and use them in your own robotics project, check out our beginner-friendly online course “A-Z Robotics: Learn coding & electronics on MicroBit through fun projects”

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