The trials and tribulations of NASA's hammering probe on Mars
Save the mole!
NASA's Mars InSight Lander arrived on Mars in November, 2018, armed with a slew of instruments to find out what Mars is made of. However, things haven't gone exactly according to plan.
One of the lander's instruments, a 16 inch long self-hammering probe known as the mole, has been having trouble digging into the Martian soil for more than a year now. The InSight mission recently revealed that with the help of the lander's robotic arm, the mole is mostly underground but still not digging on its own like it's supposed to.
Meanwhile, the team on ground control is troubleshooting the instrument, sending commands to another planet over 70 million miles away.
InSight's heat probe, or the mole, is supposed to burrow down to almost 16 feet deep in the Martian surface in order to measure the heat coming from the insides of Mars. The data is meant to reveal how much heat is flowing out of the planet's body, and what the source of that heat is, so that scientists can determine whether Earth and Mars formed from the same material.
However, since February 2019, the mole has been having difficulty digging into Mars.
The team of engineers behind the mission believe that the soil is the reason why the self-hammering probe has been malfunctioning. Loose soil provides friction, collapsing around the mole as it buries itself down. However, the type of soil around the lander has been more cement-like duricrust, with dirt granules that stick together, according to NASA.
As a result, the mole has been bouncing in place rather than digging down.
However, the InSight lander has not given up on its companion in need, using its robotic arm to help force the mole downwards into the soil. The 'save the mole' campaign has continued for over a year, and NASA isn't giving up on this little digger just yet.
The public has also been concerned with this ongoing saga. According to NASA's frequently asked questions page, some have wondered "Why can't you just pick up the mole and move it to another spot?" or, "Are you sure the mole didn't hit a rock?"
Earlier in June, the pair seemed to be making some progress as InSight successfully pushed the mole underground with its robotic arm.
A month later on July 7, InSight updated the world on its progress on the Red Planet, stating that the mole appears to be fully underground but is not yet digging on its own.
But InSight has other things to focus on while on Mars as well, tweeting out, "I’ll be using my arm for a couple other tasks like imaging my solar panels, while I consider other ways to assist, maybe as an earthmover – er, “marsmover” – to push loose soil into the hole."
Aside from being preoccupied with the mole, NASA's InSight Lander has made progress in other areas. During its first three months on the Red Planet, InSight detected its first marsquake, that's an earthquake but on Mars.
Using that data, scientists have confirmed that Mars is a seismically active planet with signs of tectonic plate activity, much like that seen on Earth.
InSight is expected to spend another year on Mars, and hopefully by then the mole will be self-hammering like a champ.