NASA’s newest Mars robot has a serious problem. The InSight lander is a relative newcomer to the Red Planet, having safely arrived at its chosen destination late last year, but one of its most important instruments — a self-hammering “mole” tool that is designed to dig up to 16 feet beneath the dusty surface — just can’t seem to get the job done.
The instrument failed miserably during its attempt to dig deep through the Martian soil, only making it about a foot deep before stalling out. Engineers suspect they know why, and they’ve just begun working towards what will hopefully be a permanent fix.
The InSight team believes that the mole tool is coming up short of its goal because the dirty surrounding it is too loose, making it hard for the instrument to get enough traction to push itself deeper.
To give the mole the help it needs, the science team came up with a plan to use the lander’s robotic arm to put pressure on the soil around the hole where the mole began to dig. Doing so, it’s thought, will provide the tool with the friction it needs to dig deeper.
However, before the InSight team could actually attempt this plan, it needed to yank the mole’s support structure out of the way so that the robot’s cameras can see the mole and the tiny hole it is embedded in. That’s exactly what NASA did last week.
“We’ve completed the first step in our plan to save the mole,” Troy Hudson, a member of the InSight team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “We’re not done yet. But for the moment, the entire team is elated because we’re that much closer to getting the mole moving again.”
There’s still plenty of work to do before the mole is operational again, and nobody is really sure if the new plan is going to work. If the mole hit a rock beneath the surface, its path could be blocked indefinitely. The support frame that the lander just removed is designed to let the robot remove the mole and relocate it, but that won’t be possible now. It’s a gamble, but hopefully it will pay off.