JPL engineers recreate InSight's Martian environment in California lab

Every rover that NASA sends into space to cruise the surface of the Red Planet has a full-size replica that is used by engineers and scientists on the ground to plan missions here on Earth before trying things out on Mars. InSight has one of these full-size replicas at the JPL lab in Pasadena, California. In preparation for InSight to place its instruments onto the Martian surface, the engineers have created a replica of the workspace InSight is dealing with.

JPL engineers design a Martian rock garden of sorts that is based on images sent back from InSight. The team put down a bed of crushed garnet intended to simulate Martian sand. The layer of simulated Martian soil the team laid down is 4-inches thick.

The soil was added to the lab to give the floor the height and slope of the surface directly in front of InSight. To get the landscape just right, the team used AR headsets to project digital terrain models of the landing site onto the floor of the lab. That allowed them to place more of the soil on the floor to get the replica as close to the actual landing site as possible.

The JPL team needed about four hours to replicate the landing area down to any pebbles or rocks larger than an inch. Wooden blocks were used to mark the perimeter of the area where the seismometer and heat flow probe instruments could be placed. To ensure placement, precision cameras were used to measure each feature the team needed to replicate.

With the landing site replicated as perfectly as possible, the engineers can now practice placing the instruments on the ground in the ideal location for gathering data about Mars. Replicating the Martian surface was easier than expected thanks to the relatively rock free and smooth area in front of InSight.