NASA’s Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission (aka Mars Insight Lander) launched on May 5, 2018 is a Mars lander designed to study and thoroughly explore the Red Planet . It is the first outer space robotic explorer to study in-depth the “inner space” of Mars: its crust, mantle, and core. The Mars Insight Lander’s Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package instrument, HP3, uses a self-propelled penetrator device called the mole to dig as much as five meters into the Martian surface. The mole and the tether pulled behind it measure thermal properties of the ground, allowing scientists to reveal how much heat is flowing out through the crust of the planet, and helping them discriminate amongst models of planetary formation and evolution.
The mole is a critical piece of the Mars Insight Lander’s HP3 hardware, housing both a high-impact hammering mechanism and sensitive electronic sensors. During development, the mole was tested in a variety of Mars surface simulants under various conditions including Earth-ambient, low ambient temperature (<-50°C), low ambient pressure (<10 mbar), and low ambient temperature and pressure. In certain environmental conditions and simulant combinations the mole would successfully penetrate, while in others forward progress slowed or even reversed. Earlier during its design phase, the mole would dig properly on earth but not in the simulated Mars environment.
Researchers at RMD, helped NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) investigators troubleshoot the probe on the Mars Insight Lander through X-ray cineradiography, using RMD’s sophisticated camera designed to acquire high resolution X-ray movies at speeds exceeding 10,000 frames per second. A portable Mars environment was created at RMD’s Watertown, MA, facility using ‘Mars equivalent soil’ inside a vacuum chamber and X-ray movies were taken of the mole’s hammering mechanism in action. The attached image shows the X-ray movies of the entire mole, and a close-up of its hammering mechanism, during operation captured at 3,000 X-ray images per second. These allowed our engineers to compare actual and modeled behavior of the otherwise invisible internal workings of the mole.
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