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NASA fixed its Mars mole problem in the most unusual way

Published Mar 15th, 2020 2:14PM EDT
nasa insight mole

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  • NASA’s InSight lander might have finally fixed its mole problem. 
  • A new strategy to push the mole probe into the surface appears to be working, NASA teased in a tweet. 
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

NASA’s InSight lander has performed a lot of great work since its arrival on the Red Planet many months ago. It’s provided scientists with insights (no pun intended) into the planet, revealing that marsquakes frequently rumble across its rocky surface, and even sent back timely weather reports. Just about everything is going well for the high-tech robot. Just about.

The one instrument that has seriously failed to meet expectations is the self-hammering “mole” tool that was supposed to dig itself up to 16 deep. Its first attempts were lackluster, and even when NASA tried new techniques, Mars barfed the probe back up again. Now, NASA is pulling out all the stops, and its newest plan appears to be working.

Weeks back, NASA announced that it would use the InSight lander’s robotic arm to physically push the probe into its hole. This strategy, NASA said, could give the probe enough traction in the loose Martian soil to dig itself deeper. The probe is only useful to NASA if it can dig way, way down, so this new technique is something of a hail mary.

“The mission team plans to command the scoop on InSight’s robotic arm to press down on the ‘mole,’ the mini pile driver designed to hammer itself as much as 16 feet (5 meters) down,” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said at the time. “They hope that pushing down on the mole’s top, also called the back cap, will keep it from backing out of its hole on Mars, as it did twice in recent months after nearly burying itself.”

Nobody knew whether the strategy would work, or if it would even be possible to push on the end of the probe without damaging the connections between the instrument and the lander itself. After all, cutting the probe off from the lander would mean an abrupt end to that particular mission objective, so great care had to be taken to avoid pinching the cords and causing damage.

Today, NASA’s InSight team tweeted something that looks rather promising. It’s a very brief video that appears to show the robotic arm giving the probe a gentle nudge. The probe inches deeper into the Martian soil just before the looping video ends. Check it out:

The team seems very encouraged by the results, noting that the technique “appears to be working.” Still, it’s far too early to declare this a total success. The troublesome mole has been “rescued” before, and each time it appears to be working, something else goes wrong and it ends up on the surface again.

We’ll have to wait a while before we know if the mole will actually be able to complete its job, but for now, we’ll be cautiously optimistic.