The engineer from Ghana behind NASA’s robotic arm for Mars
Ashitey Trebi-Ollennu is a Ghanaian robotics expert and the lead engineer on InSight, NASA’s spacecraft which recently landed on Mars.
The goal of InSight is to understand how planets are formed. But to do so, there is need to look deep beneath the surface. “You have to look at the core of the planet,” says Ollennu, Instrument Deployment Systems Lead on InSight.
InSight’s robotic arm will place scientific instruments off the InSight lander onto the surface. “Our responsibility is to pick up the instruments that the scientists are going to use to examine the planets hundreds of millions of miles away,” Ollennu told CNN.
The arm, more than 5 feet 9 inches (1.8 meters) long, has a camera attached that will provide 3D color views of the landing site. It is designed to place the seismometer on the surface and position the heat flow probe - a mole that can burrow 16 feet (five meters) into the ground.
It will take two to three months for InSight’s robotic arm to set the mission’s instrument on the surface. For now, the robotic arm will be taking pictures of Mars.
“This is my fifth mission landing on mars that we are working on. I’ve been working on Mars for like 20 years now,” Ollennu says.
Ollennu, who was born in Accra, Ghana, majored in avionics at Queen Mary University of London and then obtained a Ph. D. in control systems engineering at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom.
The engineer says he believes that he is lucky to have had a “solid” academic foundation in Ghana Senior High Technical School, a Science and Technology oriented high school in Takoradi.
“There you get to do a lot of woodwork, metalwork, engineering, drawing so that kind of gives you a very good balance and a lot of science as well,” he said.
He is also inspiring generations of young scientists and innovators in the West African nation through the Ghana Robotic Academy Foundation. Founded in 1991, the nonprofit organization encourages school kids to engage in applied science by running hands-on robotics workshops and competitions throughout the country.
The outcome is massive as some of the kids have competed in international robotic competitions like the World Robotics Olympiad and Robofest where they are encouraged to sharpen their skills in Computer, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths.