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It worked! NASA’s plan to get its InSight tool digging again pays off

Published Oct 18th, 2019 5:06PM EDT
insight lander mole
Image: NASA/JPL - Caltech

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NASA’s InSight lander is doing some great work on Mars. It’s been listening closely for rumblings from inside the planet and even provides timely weather reports back to Earth. It’s great… but it could be even greater.

Shortly after deploying its instruments it quickly became clear that one of the tools just wasn’t performing as expected. The self-burring “mole” tool, which is designed to dig up to 16 feet into the surface just couldn’t get a grip, stalling out and putting one of the mission’s objectives in jeopardy. Now, a rather innovative workaround has proven successful, and the mole is digging once more.

It was believed that the mole was failing at its job because the soil covering the surface of Mars was just too loose. The mole relies on the friction of the surrounding soil to provide the leverage it needs to push itself deeper. That simply wasn’t working, so NASA has spent months trying to come up with a solution.

The space agency ultimately decided to remove a shield that was covering the mole and use the InSight lander’s robotic arm to push against the ground near the hole. This, the InSight team hoped, would push the mole against the side of its hole and give it the friction it needs to dig.

The plan worked, and as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains in a new blog post, the mole managed to dig itself slightly deeper. This suggests that the mole hadn’t encountered a rock beneath the surface, which is one of the things NASA engineers had been concerned about, and that it simply needed a bit more grip to get the job done.

The InSight team isn’t out of the woods yet, and the mole still has a long way to go before it reaches the depth that was planned, but the fact that it’s moving is a great sign. Going forward, the team will monitor its progress and, if the mole stalls out again, the possibility of using the lander’s robo-arm to push down on the top of the mole is still on the table.

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