As it gears up for its two-year geological mission, NASA's Mars InSight lander has started flexing its almost 6-ft (2-m) robotic arm. One of the key pieces of equipment on the unmanned explorer, the arm will eventually be used to place experiments on the Martian surface, but for the next two or three months will be used to examine the spacecraft for damage and helping to calibrate its instruments.
It's been a busy time for InSight since it touched down on the Red Planet on November 26. The robotic lander has sent back selfies to show it was operating, deployed its vital solar panels, and set a new record for generating electricity on the surface of Mars. Now comes the long, meticulous task of checking out the spacecraft's systems and readying the experiments before deploying them on the Elysium Planitia lava plain.
To achieve this, mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena California has ordered InSight to exercise its robotic arm, which is equipped with an Instrument Deployment Camera at its elbow to allow it to move about and examine the lander and the surrounding area. It's aided in this job by the Instrument Context Camera set in the deck of the lander's body that takes pictures of the front of the lander, where the instrument packages will be placed – though the lens was a bit obscured by dust on arrival.
InSight has already spent a week and a half testing its systems and instruments, with the meteorological Auxiliary Payload Sensor Subsystem picking up data on wind, temperature, and the local magnetic field. It even managed to detect a passing dust devil by it causing a sudden drop in air pressure.
But the real objective of the mission is to gain an understanding of the deep structure and geological dynamics of Mars, which will involve placing a seismometer, deep-drilling rig, and other instruments directly on the surface. It's an extremely intricate task, so the NASA will spend up to three months studying the area and calibrating the instruments before deploying them. Meanwhile, the space agency is being careful not to do anything that might trigger a fault aboard the spacecraft that would cause an automatic halt to proceedings.
"We did extensive testing on Earth. But we know that everything is a little different for the lander on Mars, so faults are not unusual," says Tom Hoffman, InSight's project manager. "They can delay operations, but we're not in a rush. We want to be sure that each operation that we perform on Mars is safe, so we set our safety monitors to be fairly sensitive initially."
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