NASA’s InSight lander doesn’t get as much attention as the Curiosity rover, but it has been on Mars and making history for almost a year. It’s sent back weather reports from the red planet, recorded the ghostly sounds of the Martian wind, and deployed the first-ever seismometer on another planet. It’s not all peachy for InSight, though. After finally making some progress with the lander’s burrowing “mole” probe, NASA reports that Mars has just unceremoniously expelled the device from its tunnel.
The mole, known more properly as the Heat and Physical Properties Package (HP3), is like a small self-hammering nail covered with temperature sensors. It was supposed to dig down to a depth of 16 feet (5 meters) in order to take internal measurements for the first time ever. However, the probe had unexpected difficulty burrowing into the Martian surface. The InSight team shared a GIF on Twitter of the probe’s misfortune over the weekend, showing the mole losing what little ground it had gained.
After initially stalling just below the surface, NASA worried the probe had hit a rock or a layer of dense soil that would stop it from progressing. However, the team decided to use the lander’s robotic arm to compact the soil around the probe, hoping the issue was simply a lack of friction. The HP3 did make about 3cm of progress shortly after that, but Mars was having none of that nonsense. The GIF shows that, over the space of a few hours, the HP3 popped back out of its tunnel after finally making a bit of headway. The probe is currently about halfway out of the ground.
Mars continues to surprise us. While digging this weekend the mole backed about halfway out of the ground. Preliminary assessment points to unexpected soil properties as the main reason. Team looking at next steps. #SaveTheMole #Teamwork pic.twitter.com/UURvU8VTwZ
— NASA InSight (@NASAInSight) October 27, 2019
NASA noted that early testing on Earth suggested that the mole might have trouble with soil falling back into the hole ahead of the probe as it retracted for each new push. NASA chalks the problem up to “unexpected soil properties.” The team is currently evaluating the data and hopes to have a better idea what’s wrong later this week.
Even if NASA can’t find a way to make the mole work, that will tell us something interesting about the surface of Mars. The extremely fine and low-friction nature of Martian soil could change the way we design future missions. It’s just like Curiosity’s experience with pointy rocks — all the punctures in its aluminum wheels informed a design change for the upcoming Mars 2020 mission.
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