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Insight Into The Robotic Arm Of The Mars InSight Lander

(Pasadena, California – May 10, 2021)

Robotic Arms For Every Mission, A Five-Part Series


In the future, the robotic arms reaching into new space will be a lot longer and more powerful than past robotic arms. In this five-part series, we will explore the goals and the key technologies lengthening the reach and strengthening the capacity of humanity’s exploration of space.


Motiv Space Systems is humbled to partner with NASA and JPL, and to be part of a team that will continue to make history in space exploration. As explorers, we will continue to advance the fields of space exploration.


InSight’s Journey And Mission
The journey to Mars is not an easy one. An unprecedented feat of time, resources, and engineering is required to arrive at the hardened crust of the Red Planet.


The mission of the Mars InSight lander was to go deep, deeper than ever before into the interior of the Red Planet. On November 26, 2018, the mission began. Touching down in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars, according to NASA (1), the InSight lander was able to “investigate processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system more than four billion years ago.”


Once the spacecraft landed, the robotic arm began to do its work. Immediately, its robotic arm set its seismometer HP3 (Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package), as well as the seismometer’s Wind and Thermal Shield, onto the planet’s surface. The robotic arm also has a key technology partner called “the mole” – a heat probe. The mole is like a 16-inch-long (40-centimeter-long) pile driver, or a great spike equipped with an internal hammering mechanism.


The mole helps the robotic arm accomplish the main mission of InSight—to probe deeper into the Red Planet’s rocky crust than scientists have ever gone before. These exploratory instruments, NASA (2) reported, “reveal details about the formation of Mars and, ultimately, all rocky planets, including Earth.”


Challenges To The InSight Mission
Like any space mission, the InSight lander has encountered its share of challenges. On February 28, 2019, the first day of hammering, the mole got stuck. As it turns out, the soil where InSight landed didn’t have the expected friction properties, making traction difficult. This thick duricrust presented, and continues to present, a major challenge for lander operation. The robotic arm has continued to play a key role in InSight’s mission. According to InSight Mission News (3) in February 2020:


“The InSight team started using the robotic arm’s scoop to press on the side of the mole, a technique called ‘pinning’ that added just enough friction to help it dig without coming in contact with the fragile science tether connected to the mole’s back cap.”


Since February 2019, the self-hammering mole has experienced difficulty driving down into the Martian soil. According to Space.com (4), while controllers instructed InSight to make 500 hammer strokes to drive the mole into the crust of Mars, “the probe didn’t budge from its shallow perch. The mission originally called for InSight to deploy sensors once the mole was 10 feet (3 meters) under the surface, but the mole never made it further than a few inches.”


While the mole failed to reach its primary objective, the scientists behind the probe learned other valuable lessons, including the first ever use of a robotic arm (5) in ways that “engineers never anticipated, such as using those tools to push against and down on the mole.”


In learning new skills in a new environment, InSight’s robotic arm and mole accomplished several first “reaches” on the Red Planet.


For Further Exploration
To read more about InSight’s present-day mission, and the continued use of its robotic arm, visit NASA (6) for further exploration.



1) https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/insight/main/index.html
2) https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/nasas-insight-flexes-its-arm-while-its-mole-hits-pause
3) https://mars.nasa.gov/news/8612/mars-insight-lander-to-push-on-top-of-the-mole/?site=insight
4) https://www.space.com/mars-mole-heat-probe-stops-digging-nasa-insight
5) https://www.space.com/mars-mole-heat-probe-stops-digging-nasa-insight
6) https://mars.nasa.gov/insight/

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