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Mars testbed
Engineers test a replica of NASA’s InSight lander as it lifts a wind shield with its robotic arm, under Mars-style illumination in a testbed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (NASA / JPL via YouTube)

When NASA’s InSight lander touches down on Mars in November, its handlers already will have had lots of practice operating its cranelike robot arm — thanks to an InSight knockoff sitting in a plot of simulated Martian grit back on Earth.

The Mars-style testbed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is the focus of a newly released 360-degree video clip.

JPL’s scientists and engineers use the testbed, set up in a facility known as the In-Situ Instrument Lab, to simulate the terrain in which Mars probes might find themselves.

When the Opportunity rover got hung up in a sand dune in 2005, for example, engineers whipped up a batch of sand to duplicate the setting and figure out the best way to get the rover rolling again.

Stuck wheels won’t be a concern for InSight, which is designed to stay in one place and monitor Mars’ seismic activity as well as its interior temperature swings. Nevertheless, the mission team wants to make sure the lander and its instruments can do their job, even if the terrain is tilted as much as 15 degrees.

So engineers filled the testbed with crushed garnet to simulate the blend of sand and gravel that InSight is expected to encounter at its planned landing site on the plains of Elysium Planitia. Then they set up a replica of the lander, complete with a deployable seismometer, wind shield and heat-flow probe.

The simulated Martian soil can be piled up at different inclines to test how best to deploy InSight’s instruments in a variety of scenarios.

Marleen Sundgaard, InSight’s testbed lead at JPL, said one challenge has to do with how to keep from tangling up the power cables that connect the instruments to the lander. “We have multiple places where we could put each instrument down,” Sundgaard said today in a news release. “There are scenarios where the tethers would cross each other, so we need to make sure they don’t snag.”

The testbed also recreates the reddish-yellowish color of sunlight that filters through Mars’ dusty atmosphere, in order to calibrate InSight’s cameras.

All this is taking place even before InSight’s takeoff: While engineers practice on the replica in JPL’s testbed, the real lander is being readied for liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch window is open from May 5 to June 8.

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