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NASA’s InSight robot is fighting against Mars to save a vital instrument

Published Oct 4th, 2019 9:19PM EDT
insight mole
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA’s InSight lander has been resting safely on Mars for nearly a year now, and it’s doing some seriously great work. Most of the robot’s suite of sensitive instruments have been working as intended, sending back data and recordings of seismic activity on the dusty planet. However, one of the tools, called the “mole,” has fallen well short of expectations.

The instrument is supposed to hammer itself into the surface, pushing itself to a depth of up to 16 feet to gather temperature readings. Unfortunately, the probe has failed to bury itself any deeper than about a foot, but NASA thinks it knows why.

The self-hammering mole relies on the friction of the surrounding soil to push itself along, but it’s now believed that the soil is simply too loose for the probe to catch a grip. Thankfully, the InSight lander is equipped with an arm that may be able to help.

Using InSight’s long metal arm, the science team will “pin” the mole against the side of its hole, increasing the friction of the surrounding material and hopefully giving the probe a chance to fulfill its destiny.

This operation has been a long time coming, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has had to prepare for the opportunity by removing a shroud surrounding the mole and getting the arm into position. This is made more difficult by the fact that there’s a significant communication delay between Earth and Mars, and the team has to wait to see its commands carried out before it knows how to proceed.

It’s worth noting that the lander’s robotic arm was never designed to do this. It can’t be controlled in real-time, so its handlers can instruct the arm to push for a few moments and then stop in the way that they might if the probe were sitting here on Earth. Instead, they have to tell the robot where to position the arm — in this case, right up against the soil next to the mole — and hope against hope that the exercise works.

However this unfolds, we won’t have to wait long to find out the fate of the mole, but we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed.