There have been a few rovers sent to the red planet in the past, but in December 2018 a new robot landed safely on Mars! I was lucky to be able to see a presentation by a retired scientist from the Jet Propulsion laboratories on the new rover, “Insight.” I went to this presentation last week on Jan. 24th. It was set up by the AIAA Club (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics).
Around 40 people were at the presentation. It was in the lecture hall I had my chemistry for engineers class in last term. I like the room because it has great lefty desks. I got to the presentation a little early and saw some people I have class with this term. The room was already dim and the powerpoint was pulled up on the projector.
The power point had great information about the project, including the process of designing the rover and mission, logistics of getting the rover to Mars, and info about its job once it lands. They took quite a long time to build the robot! They used a lot of simulations and made a prototype. Once Insight landed, Jet Propulsion labs made a sand bed to mimic its surroundings on Mars. They even made a robot that is just a little lighter to match its weight on Mars, and they practice everything they want Insight to do, here on Earth.
Landing on Mars was a big part of the presentation. It sounds like one of the most complicated parts of the operation. There were two videos in the powerpoint explaining what it takes to enter Mars’ atmosphere and actually land correctly on the ground. The first video was an animation of what happens to the rover as it enters the atmosphere. It has to hit at the perfect angle so it doesn’t bounce off, or hit too hard. The heat shield protects it until the air thins, then it pops off and the parachute extends. Eventually the parachute and shell pop off and the rover lands using small booster. They have to click off at exactly the right time so Insight doesn’t flip over when it hits the ground.
An engineer from JPL talked in the second video. Did you know that the rocket carrying Insight launched from California? Most rockets launch from Florida to use the Earth’s momentum as a sling shot because they can go over the ocean. But you can’t use the Earth’s rotation in California because you can risk going over the U.S. They had to launch from California however because there are tons of flights going out of Florida, and they would have to stop them all up for a month. Going to Mars is super time sensitive and the couldn’t risk not being able to leave when they need.
In fact, the first time they were going to launch Insight a couple years ago, they realized that there was a tiny leak in a critical vacuum, and had to fix it. The leak was so small that it would take a tire hundreds of years or something to go flat if it had one. But since they missed the right flight they had to wait two years to launch again. But they got it out and it landed great!
Now Insight is preparing to drill up to 5 meters into the ground to take samples. The drill it uses uses a hammer to hit the drill bit further into the ground hit by hit. Insight also has a seismometer to measure tremors and earth quakes. It is so sensitive is records tiny things from all the way across Mars. Insight also has a shield it is swinging in place over the seismometer right now. It has one arm it uses to take pictures and place instruments. Its kind of crazy to think humans built and sent something so far away and its up there right now, with its solar panels fanned out and it instruments humming away.