‘Underwater Pokéball’ snatches up soft-bodied deep dwellers

‘Underwater Pokéball’ snatches up soft-bodied deep dwellers
Creatures that live in the depths of the oceans are often extremely fragile, making their collection a difficult affair. A new polyhedral sample-collection mechanism acts like an “underwater Pokéball,” allowing scientists to catch ’em all without destroying their soft, squishy bodies in the process.
The ball is technically a dodecahedron that closes softly around the creature in front of it. It’s not exactly revolutionary, except in that it is extremely simple mechanically — at depths of thousands of feet, the importance of this can’t be overstated — and non-destructive.
Sampling is often done via a tube with moving caps on both ends into which the creature must be guided and trapped, or a vacuum tube that sucks it in, which as you can imagine is at best unpleasant for the target and at worst, lethal.
The rotary actuated dodecahedron, or RAD, has five 3D-printed “petals” with a complex-looking but mechanically simple framework that allows them to close up simultaneously from force applied at a single point near the rear panel.
“I was building microrobots by hand in graduate school, which was very painstaking and tedious work,” explained creator Zhi Ern Teoh, of Harvard’s Wyss Institute, “and I wondered if there was a way to fold a flat surface into a three-dimensional shape using a motor instead.”
The answer is yes, obviously, since he made it; the details are published in Science Robotics. Inspired by origami and papercraft, Teoh and his colleagues applied their design knowledge to creating not just a fold-up polyhedron (you can cut one out of any sheet of paper) but a mechanism that would perform that folding process in one smooth movement. The result is the network of hinged arms around the polyhedron tuned to push lightly and evenly and seal it up.
In testing, the RAD successfully captured some moon jellies in a pool, then at around 2,000 feet below the ocean surface was able to snag squid, octopus and wild jellies and release them again with no harm done. They didn’t capture the octopus on camera, but apparently it was curious about the device.
Because of the RAD’s design, it would work just as well miles below the surface, the researchers said, though they haven’t had a chance to test that yet.
“The RAD sampler design is perfect for the difficult environment of the deep ocean because its controls are very simple, so there are fewer elements that can break,” Teoh said.
There’s also no barrier to building a larger one, or a similar device that would work in space, he pointed out. As for current applications like sampling of ocean creatures, the setup could easily be enhanced with cameras and other tools or sensors.
“In the future, we can capture an animal, collect lots of data about it like its size, material properties, and even its genome, and then let it go,” said co-author David Gruber, from CUNY. “Almost like an underwater alien abduction.”

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Watch Rocket Lab’s first commercial launch, ‘It’s Business Time’ [Update: Postponed]

Watch Rocket Lab’s first commercial launch, ‘It’s Business Time’ [Update: Postponed]
Rocket Lab, the New Zealand-based rocket company that is looking to further amplify the commercial space frenzy, is launching its first fully paid payload atop an Electron rocket tonight — technically tomorrow morning at the launch site. If successful, it will mark a significant new development in the highly competitive world of commercial launches.
Update: Sorry folks but not today. The company said it will announce a new target soon, while the launch window remains July 6.
Liftoff is planned for 2:10 in the morning local time in New Zealand, or 7:10 Pacific time in the U.S.; the live stream will start about 20 minutes before that.

The Electron rocket is a far smaller one than the Falcon 9s we see so frequently these days, with a nominal payload of 150 kilograms, just a fraction of the many tons that we see sent up by SpaceX. But that’s the whole point, Rocket Lab’s founder, CEO and chief engineer Peter Beck told me recently.
“You can go buy a spot on a big launch vehicle, but they’re not very frequent. With a small rocket you can choose your orbit and choose your schedule,” he said. “That’s what we’re driving at here: regular and reliable access to space.”
An Electron rocket launching during a previous test
Just like not every car on the road has to be a big rig, not every rocket needs to be a Saturn V; 150 kilos is more than enough to fill with paying customers and cover the cost of launch. And Beck told me there is no shortage whatsoever of paying customers.
“The most important part of the mission is the timing in which we manifested it,” he explained (manifesting meaning having a payload added to the manifest). “We went from nothing manifested to a full payload in about 12 weeks.”
For comparison, some missions or payloads will wait literally years before there’s an opportunity to get to the orbit they need. Loading up just a few weeks ahead of time is unusual, to say the least.
Today’s launch will carry satellites from Spire, Tyvak/GeoOptics, students at UC Irvine and High Performance Space Structure Systems; you can see the specifics of these on the manifest (PDF). It’s not the first time an Electron has taken a paid payload to orbit, but it is the first fully commercialized launch.
Rocket Lab has no ambitions for interplanetary travel, sending people to space or anything like that. It just wants to take 150 kilograms to orbit as often as it can, as inexpensively as it can.
“We’re not interested in building a bigger rocket, we’re interested in building more of this one,” Beck said. “The vehicle is fully dialed in; we started from day one with this vehicle designed from a production approach. We’re fully vertically integrated, we don’t have any contractors, we do everything in-house. We’ve been scaling up the factories enormously.”
“We’re looking for a one-a-month cadence this year, then next year one every two weeks,” he continued. “Frequency is the key — it’s the choke point in space right now.”
Ultimately the plan is to get a rocket lifting off every few days. And if you think that will be enough to meet demand, just wait a couple years.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

This smart prosthetic ankle adjusts to rough terrain

This smart prosthetic ankle adjusts to rough terrain
Prosthetic limbs are getting better and more personalized, but useful as they are, they’re still a far cry from the real thing. This new prosthetic ankle is a little closer than others, though: it moves on its own, adapting to its user’s gait and the surface on which it lands.
Your ankle does a lot of work when you walk: lifting your toe out of the way so you don’t scuff it on the ground, controlling the tilt of your foot to minimize the shock when it lands or as you adjust your weight, all while conforming to bumps and other irregularities it encounters. Few prostheses attempt to replicate these motions, meaning all that work is done in a more basic way, like the bending of a spring or compression of padding.
But this prototype ankle from Michael Goldfarb, a mechanical engineering professor at Vanderbilt, goes much further than passive shock absorption. Inside the joint are a motor and actuator, controlled by a chip that senses and classifies motion and determines how each step should look.

Po 3D prints personalized prosthetic hands for the needy in South America

“This device first and foremost adapts to what’s around it,” Goldfarb said in a video documenting the prosthesis.
“You can walk up slopes, down slopes, up stairs and down stairs, and the device figures out what you’re doing and functions the way it should,” he added in a news release from the university.
When it senses that the foot has lifted up for a step, it can lift the toe up to keep it clear, also exposing the heel so that when the limb comes down, it can roll into the next step. And by reading the pressure both from above (indicating how the person is using that foot) and below (indicating the slope and irregularities of the surface) it can make that step feel much more like a natural one.

One veteran of many prostheses, Mike Sasser, tested the device and had good things to say: “I’ve tried hydraulic ankles that had no sort of microprocessors, and they’ve been clunky, heavy and unforgiving for an active person. This isn’t that.”
Right now the device is still very lab-bound, and it runs on wired power — not exactly convenient if someone wants to go for a walk. But if the joint works as designed, as it certainly seems to, then powering it is a secondary issue. The plan is to commercialize the prosthesis in the next couple of years once all that is figured out. You can learn a bit more about Goldfarb’s research at the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

This box sucks pure water out of dry desert air

This box sucks pure water out of dry desert air
For many of us, clean, drinkable water comes right out of the tap. But for billions it’s not that simple, and all over the world researchers are looking into ways to fix that. Today brings work from Berkeley, where a team is working on a water-harvesting apparatus that requires no power and can produce water even in the dry air of the desert. Hey, if a cactus can do it, why can’t we?
While there are numerous methods for collecting water from the air, many require power or parts that need to be replaced; what professor Omar Yaghi has developed needs neither.
The secret isn’t some clever solar concentrator or low-friction fan — it’s all about the materials. Yaghi is a chemist, and has created what’s called a metal-organic framework, or MOF, that’s eager both to absorb and release water.
It’s essentially a powder made of tiny crystals in which water molecules get caught as the temperature decreases. Then, when the temperature increases again, the water is released into the air again.
Yaghi demonstrated the process on a small scale last year, but now he and his team have published the results of a larger field test producing real-world amounts of water.
They put together a box about two feet per side with a layer of MOF on top that sits exposed to the air. Every night the temperature drops and the humidity rises, and water is trapped inside the MOF; in the morning, the sun’s heat drives the water from the powder, and it condenses on the box’s sides, kept cool by a sort of hat. The result of a night’s work: 3 ounces of water per pound of MOF used.
That’s not much more than a few sips, but improvements are already on the way. Currently the MOF uses zicronium, but an aluminum-based MOF, already being tested in the lab, will cost 99 percent less and produce twice as much water.

With the new powder and a handful of boxes, a person’s drinking needs are met without using any power or consumable material. Add a mechanism that harvests and stores the water and you’ve got yourself an off-grid potable water solution.
“There is nothing like this,” Yaghi explained in a Berkeley news release. “It operates at ambient temperature with ambient sunlight, and with no additional energy input you can collect water in the desert. The aluminum MOF is making this practical for water production, because it is cheap.”
He says there are already commercial products in development. More tests, with mechanical improvements and including the new MOF, are planned for the hottest months of the summer.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Watch a hard-working robot improvise to climb drawers and cross gaps

Watch a hard-working robot improvise to climb drawers and cross gaps
A robot’s got to know its limitations. But that doesn’t mean it has to accept them. This one in particular uses tools to expand its capabilities, commandeering nearby items to construct ramps and bridges. It’s satisfying to watch but, of course, also a little worrying.
This research, from Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, is essentially about making a robot take stock of its surroundings and recognize something it can use to accomplish a task that it knows it can’t do on its own. It’s actually more like a team of robots, since the parts can detach from one another and accomplish things on their own. But you didn’t come here to debate the multiplicity or unity of modular robotic systems! That’s for the folks at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, where this paper was presented (and Spectrum got the first look).
SMORES-EP is the robot in play here, and the researchers have given it a specific breadth of knowledge. It knows how to navigate its environment, but also how to inspect it with its little mast-cam and from that inspection derive meaningful data like whether an object can be rolled over, or a gap can be crossed.
It also knows how to interact with certain objects, and what they do; for instance, it can use its built-in magnets to pull open a drawer, and it knows that a ramp can be used to roll up to an object of a given height or lower.
A high-level planning system directs the robots/robot-parts based on knowledge that isn’t critical for any single part to know. For example, given the instruction to find out what’s in a drawer, the planner understands that to accomplish that, the drawer needs to be open; for it to be open, a magnet-bot will have to attach to it from this or that angle, and so on. And if something else is necessary, for example a ramp, it will direct that to be placed as well.
The experiment shown in this video has the robot system demonstrating how this could work in a situation where the robot must accomplish a high-level task using this limited but surprisingly complex body of knowledge.

In the video, the robot is told to check the drawers for certain objects. In the first drawer, the target objects aren’t present, so it must inspect the next one up. But it’s too high — so it needs to get on top of the first drawer, which luckily for the robot is full of books and constitutes a ledge. The planner sees that a ramp block is nearby and orders it to be put in place, and then part of the robot detaches to climb up and open the drawer, while the other part maneuvers into place to check the contents. Target found!
In the next task, it must cross a gap between two desks. Fortunately, someone left the parts of a bridge just lying around. The robot puts the bridge together, places it in position after checking the scene, and sends its forward half rolling towards the goal.
These cases may seem rather staged, but this isn’t about the robot itself and its ability to tell what would make a good bridge. That comes later. The idea is to create systems that logically approach real-world situations based on real-world data and solve them using real-world objects. Being able to construct a bridge from scratch is nice, but unless you know what a bridge is for, when and how it should be applied, where it should be carried and how to get over it, and so on, it’s just a part in search of a whole.
Likewise, many a robot with a perfectly good drawer-pulling hand will have no idea that you need to open a drawer before you can tell what’s in it, or that maybe you should check other drawers if the first doesn’t have what you’re looking for!
Such basic problem-solving is something we take for granted, but nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to robot brains. Even in the experiment described above, the robot failed multiple times for multiple reasons while attempting to accomplish its goals. That’s okay — we all have a little room to improve.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

HoloLens acts as eyes for blind users and guides them with audio prompts

HoloLens acts as eyes for blind users and guides them with audio prompts
Microsoft’s HoloLens has an impressive ability to quickly sense its surroundings, but limiting it to displaying emails or game characters on them would show a lack of creativity. New research shows that it works quite well as a visual prosthesis for the vision impaired, not relaying actual visual data but guiding them in real time with audio cues and instructions.
The researchers, from Caltech and University of Southern California, first argue that restoring vision is at present simply not a realistic goal, but that replacing the perception portion of vision isn’t necessary to replicate the practical portion. After all, if you can tell where a chair is, you don’t need to see it to avoid it, right?
Crunching visual data and producing a map of high-level features like walls, obstacles and doors is one of the core capabilities of the HoloLens, so the team decided to let it do its thing and recreate the environment for the user from these extracted features.
They designed the system around sound, naturally. Every major object and feature can tell the user where it is, either via voice or sound. Walls, for instance, hiss (presumably a white noise, not a snake hiss) as the user approaches them. And the user can scan the scene, with objects announcing themselves from left to right from the direction in which they are located. A single object can be selected and will repeat its callout to help the user find it.
That’s all well for stationary tasks like finding your cane or the couch in a friend’s house. But the system also works in motion.
The team recruited seven blind people to test it out. They were given a brief intro but no training, and then asked to accomplish a variety of tasks. The users could reliably locate and point to objects from audio cues, and were able to find a chair in a room in a fraction of the time they normally would, and avoid obstacles easily as well.
This render shows the actual paths taken by the users in the navigation tests
Then they were tasked with navigating from the entrance of a building to a room on the second floor by following the headset’s instructions. A “virtual guide” repeatedly says “follow me” from an apparent distance of a few feet ahead, while also warning when stairs were coming, where handrails were and when the user had gone off course.
All seven users got to their destinations on the first try, and much more quickly than if they had had to proceed normally with no navigation. One subject, the paper notes, said “That was fun! When can I get one?”
Microsoft actually looked into something like this years ago, but the hardware just wasn’t there — HoloLens changes that. Even though it is clearly intended for use by sighted people, its capabilities naturally fill the requirements for a visual prosthesis like the one described here.
Interestingly, the researchers point out that this type of system was also predicted more than 30 years ago, long before they were even close to possible:
“I strongly believe that we should take a more sophisticated approach, utilizing the power of artificial intelligence for processing large amounts of detailed visual information in order to substitute for the missing functions of the eye and much of the visual pre-processing performed by the brain,” wrote the clearly far-sighted C.C. Collins way back in 1985.
The potential for a system like this is huge, but this is just a prototype. As systems like HoloLens get lighter and more powerful, they’ll go from lab-bound oddities to everyday items — one can imagine the front desk at a hotel or mall stocking a few to give to vision-impaired folks who need to find their room or a certain store.
“By this point we expect that the reader already has proposals in mind for enhancing the cognitive prosthesis,” they write. “A hardware/software platform is now available to rapidly implement those ideas and test them with human subjects. We hope that this will inspire developments to enhance perception for both blind and sighted people, using augmented auditory reality to communicate things that we cannot see.”

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

IBM’s Verifier inspects (and verifies) diamonds, pills and materials at the micron level

IBM’s Verifier inspects (and verifies) diamonds, pills and materials at the micron level
It’s not enough in this day and age that we have to deal with fake news, we also have to deal with fake prescription drugs, fake luxury goods, and fake Renaissance-era paintings. Sometimes all at once! IBM’s Verifier is a gadget and platform made (naturally) to instantly verify that something is what it claims to be, by inspecting it at a microscopic level.
Essentially you stick a little thing on your phone’s camera, open the app, and put the sensor against what you’re trying to verify, be it a generic antidepressant or an ore sample. By combining microscopy, spectroscopy, and a little bit of AI, the Verifier compares what it sees to a known version of the item and tells you whether they’re the same.
The key component in this process is an “optical element” that sits in front of the camera (it can be anything that takes a decent image) amounting to a specialized hyper-macro lens. It allows the camera to detect features as small as a micron — for comparison, a human hair is usually a few dozen microns wide.
At the micron level there are patterns and optical characteristics that aren’t visible to the human eye, like precisely which wavelengths of light it reflects. The quality of a weave, the number of flaws in a gem, the mixture of metals in an alloy… all stuff you or I would miss, but a machine learning system trained on such examples will pick out instantly.
For instance a counterfeit pill, although orange and smooth and imprinted just like a real one if one were to just look at it, will likely appear totally different at the micro level: textures and structures with a very distinct pattern, or at least distinct from the real thing — not to mention a spectral signature that’s probably way different. There’s also no reason it can’t be used on things like expensive wines or oils, contaminated water, currency, and plenty of other items.
IBM was eager to highlight the AI element, which is trained on the various patterns and differentiates between them, though as far as I can tell it’s a pretty straightforward classification task. I’m more impressed by the lens they put together that can resolve at a micron level with so little distortion and not exclude or distort the colors too much. It even works on multiple phones — you don’t have to have this or that model.

The first application IBM is announcing for its Verifier is as a part of the diamond trade, which is of course known for fetishizing the stones and their uniqueness, and also establishing elaborate supply trains to ensure product is carefully controlled. The Verifier will be used as an aide for grading stones, not on its own but as a tool for human checkers; it’s a partnership with the Gemological Institute of America, which will test integrating the tool into its own workflow.
By imaging the stone from several angles, the individual identity of the diamond can be recorded and tracked as well, so that its provenance and trail through the industry can be tracked over the years. Here IBM imagines blockchain will be useful, which is possible but not exactly a given.
It’ll be a while before you can have one of your own, but here’s hoping this type of tech becomes popular enough that you can check the quality or makeup of something at least without having to visit some lab.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

Watch a laser-powered RoboFly flap its tiny wings

Watch a laser-powered RoboFly flap its tiny wings
Making something fly involves a lot of trade-offs. Bigger stuff can hold more fuel or batteries, but too big and the lift required is too much. Small stuff takes less lift to fly but might not hold a battery with enough energy to do so. Insect-sized drones have had that problem in the past — but now this RoboFly is taking its first flaps into the air… all thanks to the power of lasers.
We’ve seen bug-sized flying bots before, like the RoboBee, but as you can see it has wires attached to it that provide power. Batteries on board would weigh it down too much, so researchers have focused in the past on demonstrating that flight is possible in the first place at that scale.
But what if you could provide power externally without wires? That’s the idea behind the University of Washington’s RoboFly, a sort of spiritual successor to the RoboBee that gets its power from a laser trained on an attached photovoltaic cell.
“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” said co-author of the paper describing the bot, Shyam Gollakota. He’s obviously very concerned with power efficiency — last month he and his colleagues published a way of transmitting video with 99 percent less power than usual.
There’s more than enough power in the laser to drive the robot’s wings; it gets adjusted to the correct voltage by an integrated circuit, and a microcontroller sends that power to the wings depending on what they need to do. Here it goes:

“To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave. And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction,” explained lead author Johannes James.
At present the bot just takes off, travels almost no distance and lands — but that’s just to prove the concept of a wirelessly powered robot insect (it isn’t obvious). The next steps are to improve onboard telemetry so it can control itself, and make a steered laser that can follow the little bug’s movements and continuously beam power in its direction.
The team is headed to Australia next week to present the RoboFly at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

First CubeSats to travel the solar system snap ‘Pale Blue Dot’ homage

First CubeSats to travel the solar system snap ‘Pale Blue Dot’ homage
The InSight launch earlier this month had a couple of stowaways: a pair of tiny CubeSats that are already the farthest such tiny satellites have ever been from Earth — by a long shot. And one of them got a chance to snap a picture of their home planet as an homage to the Voyager mission’s famous “Pale Blue Dot.” It’s hardly as amazing a shot as the original, but it’s still cool.
The CubeSats, named MarCO-A and B, are an experiment to test the suitability of pint-size craft for exploration of the solar system; previously they have only ever been deployed into orbit.
That changed on May 5, when the InSight mission took off, with the MarCO twins detaching on a similar trajectory to the geology-focused Mars lander. It wasn’t long before they went farther than any CubeSat has gone before.

Citizen spacecraft builders literally race to the moon in NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge

A few days after launch MarCO-A and B were about a million kilometers (621,371 miles) from Earth, and it was time to unfold its high-gain antenna. A fisheye camera attached to the chassis had an eye on the process and took a picture to send back home to inform mission control that all was well.
But as a bonus (though not by accident — very few accidents happen on missions like this), Earth and the moon were in full view as MarCO-B took its antenna selfie. Here’s an annotated version of the one above:

“Consider it our homage to Voyager,” said JPL’s Andy Klesh in a news release. “CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it’s a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We’re looking forward to seeing them travel even farther.”
So far it’s only good news and validation of the idea that cheap CubeSats could potentially be launched by the dozen to undertake minor science missions at a fraction of the cost of something like InSight.
Don’t expect any more snapshots from these guys, though. A JPL representative told me the cameras were really only included to make sure the antenna deployed properly. Really any pictures of Mars or other planets probably wouldn’t be worth looking at twice — these are utility cameras with fisheye lenses, not the special instruments that orbiters use to get those great planetary shots.
The MarCOs will pass by Mars at the same time that InSight is making its landing, and depending on how things go, they may even be able to pass on a little useful info to mission control while it happens. Tune in on November 26 for that!

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch

NASA’s InSight Mars lander will gaze (and drill) into the depths of the Red Planet

NASA’s InSight Mars lander will gaze (and drill) into the depths of the Red Planet
NASA’s latest mission to Mars, InSight, is set to launch early Saturday morning in pursuit of a number of historic firsts in space travel and planetology. The lander’s instruments will probe the surface of the planet and monitor its seismic activity with unprecedented precision, while a pair of diminutive CubeSats riding shotgun will test the viability of tiny spacecraft for interplanetary travel.
Saturday at 4:05 AM Pacific is the first launch opportunity, but if weather forbids it, they’ll just try again soon after — the chances of clouds sticking around all the way until June 8, when the launch window closes, are slim to none.
InSight isn’t just a pretty name they chose; it stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, at least after massaging the acronym a bit. Its array of instruments will teach us about the Martian interior, granting us insight (see what they did there?) into the past and present of Mars and the other rocky planets in the solar system, including Earth.
Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been pushing for this mission for more than two decades, after practically a lifetime working at the place.
“This is the only job I’ve ever had in my life other than working in the tire shop during the summertime,” he said in a recent NASA podcast. He’s worked on plenty of other missions, of course, but his dedication to this one has clearly paid off. It was actually originally scheduled to launch in 2016, but some trouble with an instrument meant they had to wait until the next launch window — now.
InSight is a lander in the style of Phoenix, about the size of a small car, and shot towards Mars faster than a speeding bullet. The launch is a first in itself: NASA has never launched an interplanetary mission from the West coast, but conditions aligned in this case, making California’s Vandenberg air base the best option. It doesn’t even require a gravity assist to get where it’s going.

Did you know? I’ll be the 1st spacecraft to travel from the West Coast of the U.S. to another planet. My rocket can do that—we’ve got the power. More on launch: https://t.co/DZ8GsDTfGc pic.twitter.com/VOWiMPek5x
— NASAInSight (@NASAInSight) May 2, 2018

“Instead of having to go to Florida and using the Earth’s rotation to help slingshot us into orbit… We can blast our way straight out,” Banerdt said in the same podcast. “Plus we get to launch in a way that is gonna be visible to maybe 10 million people in Southern California because this rocket’s gonna go right by LA, right by San Diego. And if people are willing to get up at four o’clock in the morning, they should see a pretty cool light show that day.”
The Atlas V will take it up to orbit and the Centaur will give it its push towards Mars, after which it will cruise for six months or so, arriving late in the Martian afternoon on November 26 (Earth calendar).
Its landing will be as exciting (and terrifying) as Phoenix’s and many others. When it hits the Martian atmosphere, InSight will be going more than 13,000 MPH. It’ll slow down first using the atmosphere itself, losing 90 percent of its velocity as friction against a new, reinforced heat shield. A parachute takes off another 90 percent, but it’ll still be going more than 100 MPH, which would make for an uncomfortable landing. So a couple thousand feet up it will transition to landing jets that will let it touch down at a stately 5.4 MPH at the desired location and orientation.
After the dust has settled (literally) and the lander has confirmed everything is in working order, it will deploy its circular, fanlike solar arrays and get to work.
Robot arms and self-hammering robomoles
InSight’s mission is to get into the geology of Mars with more detail and depth than ever before. To that end it is packing gear for three major experiments.
SEIS is a collection of six seismic sensors (making the name a tidy bilingual, bidirectional pun) that will sit on the ground under what looks like a tiny Kingdome and monitor the slightest movement of the ground underneath. Tiny high-frequency vibrations or longer-period oscillations, they should all be detected.
“Seismology is the method that we’ve used to gain almost everything we know, all the basic information about the interior of the Earth, and we also used it back during the Apollo era to understand and to measure sort of the properties of the inside of the moon,” Banerdt said. “And so, we want to apply the same techniques but use the waves that are generated by Mars quakes, by meteorite impacts to probe deep into the interior of Mars all the way down to its core.”
The heat flow and physical properties probe is an interesting one. It will monitor the temperature of the planet below the surface continually for the duration of the mission — but in order to do so, of course, it has to dig its way down. For that purpose it’s installed with what the team calls a “self-hammering mechanical mole.” Pretty self-explanatory, right?
The “mole” is sort of like a hollow, inch-thick, 16-inch-long nail that will use a spring-loaded tungsten block inside itself to drive itself into the rock. It’s estimated that it will take somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 strikes to get deep enough to escape the daily and seasonal temperature changes at the surface.

Lastly there’s the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, which actually doesn’t need a giant nail, a tiny Kingdome or anything like that. The experiment involves tracking the position of InSight with extreme precision as Mars rotates, using its radio connection with Earth. It can be located to within about four inches, which when you think about it is pretty unbelievable to begin with. The way that position varies may indicate a wobble in the planet’s rotation and consequently shed light on its internal composition. Combined with data from similar experiments in the ’70s and ’90s, it should let planetologists determine how molten the core is.
“In some ways, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation 4.5 billion years ago,” said Banerdt in an earlier news release. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon, and even planets in other solar systems.”
In another space first, Insight has a robotic arm that will not just do things like grab rocks to look at, but will grab items from its own inventory and deploy them into its workspace. Its little fingers will grab handles on top of each deployable instrument and grab it just like a human might. Well, maybe a little differently, but the principle is the same. At nearly 8 feet long, it has a bit more reach than the average astronaut.
Cubes riding shotgun
One of the MarCO cubesats.
Insight is definitely the main payload, but it’s not the only one. Launching on the same rocket are two CubeSats, known collectively as Mars Cube One, or MarCO. These “briefcase-size” guys will separate from the rocket around the same time as InSight, but take slightly different trajectories. They don’t have the control to adjust their motion and enter an orbit, so they’ll just zoom by Mars right as Insight is landing.
CubeSats launch all the time, though, right? Sure — into Earth orbit. This will be the first attempt to send CubeSats to another planet. If successful there’s no limit to what could be accomplished — assuming you don’t need to pack anything bigger than a breadbox.
The spacecraft aren’t carrying any super-important experiments; there are two in case one fails, and both are only equipped with UHF antennas to send and receive data, and a couple of low-resolution visible-light cameras. The experiment here is really the CubeSats themselves and this launch technique. If they make it to Mars, they might be able to help send InSight’s signal home, and if they keep operating beyond that, it’s just icing on the cake.
You can follow along with InSight’s launch here; there’s also the traditional anthropomorphized Twitter account. We’ll post a link to the live stream as soon as it goes up.

Source: Gadgets – techcrunch