NASA’s InSight probe with UPC technology on board lands successfully on Mars


The Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC), located on the robotic arm of NASA's InSight lander, took this picture of the Martian surface on Nov. 26, 2018, the same day the spacecraft touched down on the Red Planet. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech


First image taken by NASA’s InSight lander on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

On 26 November, NASA’s InSight probe landed successfully on Mars with UPC technology on board. Researchers from the UPC’s Micro and Nanotechnologies Research Group participated in the design of the wind sensor that travelled on the probe, which will be the first to record seismic vibrations and measure the flow of heat emitted by the planet’s surface. This information will help determine the planet’s internal composition and how it was formed.

Dec 12, 2018

NASA’s InSight mission launched last May landed successfully on Mars at 8:53 p.m. on Monday, 26 November (CET). It landed at the Elysium Planitia, a broad plain that is safe for landing. About 40 days later, a robotic arm deposited a seismograph on the surface of Mars, to measure Martian earthquakes. The seismic waves will be used to better understand the history of the planet, as well as the formation and evolution of the other rocky planets of the solar system. InSight also has a wind sensor developed by the Spanish Astrobiology Centre in Madrid (CSIC-INTA), in collaboration with the companies CRISA and Alter, the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) and other entities.

"The wind sensor has two functions: the first is to determine whether wind interferes with the seismograph’s readings of earthquakes that occur on Mars," explains Professor Manuel Domínguez of the Department of Electronic Engineering, the main researcher of the project at the UPC, previously directed by Professor Luis Castañer until his retirement the last August. "The second is to provide us with very valuable local information: by studying the wind’s behaviour, strength and direction, and the dust that it transports, we will be able to design 3D models and improve our understanding of the planet’s orography and climatology."

The wind sensor is equipped with a silicon chip designed and manufactured by researchers from the UPC’s Micro and Nanotechnologies Research Group, linked to the Barcelona School of Telecommunications Engineering (ETSETB). The mission, which will last about two Earth years, started receiving the first data shortly after the landing. The equipment is similar to that designed for the Curiosity rover for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which reached Mars in August 2012. During these years, several researchers have worked on various missions: Vicente Jiménez, Lukasz Kowalski, Jordi Ricart, María Teresa Atienza, Sergi Gorreta and Gema López.

The ETSETB researchers are already working on the next mission, Mars 2020 Rover, a NASA Mars Exploration Programme mission that will include a Martian rover and is scheduled for launch in 2020. The main objective of this mission will be to observe signs of habitability by performing complex chemical analyses with various instruments, including one designed to look for signs of microbial life in the past. The vehicle will also have a drill for extracting samples from the surface of the planet for delivery to Earth on a future mission.

"This future mission, called Mars Sample Return, is an impressive challenge because it involves taking off from Mars to return the samples to Earth," explains Domínguez. On their return, the samples will be analysed in the most advanced laboratories without the restrictions of volume, weight and energy that are typical of space instruments. "Samples were already returned from the Apollo missions," says Domínguez, "Moon samples have been analysed over the years, and new analysis techniques are applied as they emerge. Techniques that did not exist at the time of launch could be applied after a few years."

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