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NASA has a new plan for getting the InSight lander digging again

Published Jun 5th, 2019 6:35PM EDT
nasa insight mole
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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NASA’s InSight lander is having some problems. The robot, which has already delivered some very interesting observations since arriving on Mars late last year, can’t seem to get one of its most important tools to work as planned.

The instrument, called a “mole,” was designed to hammer itself deep under the Martian surface and monitor temperature changes. NASA figured it would be able to push itself as deep as 16 feet into the Martian crust, but the consistency of the soil has made that difficult. In fact, the mole has only made it around a foot deep, and now InSight’s science team has come up with a new plan.

First, the team plans to reposition the support structure that is hindering InSight’s ability to actually see the mole’s position. They’ll have to be careful so as to not accidentally yank the instrument from the soil, but once the structure has been pulled away the team will have a better idea of how to proceed.

One possible solution being floated at the moment involves using InSight’s robotic arm to push on the soil surrounding the probe. This, InSight team members suggest, could give the mole enough friction to hammer itself deeper underground. Thus far, the mole has been a bit of a disappointment for the team, so anything that could allow the tool to find its way deeper into Mars will be considered.

“Moving the support structure will give the team a better idea of what’s happening. But it could also let us test a possible solution,” Principal Investigator Tilman Spohn said in a statement. “We plan to use InSight’s robotic arm to press on the ground. Our calculations have shown this should add friction to the soil near the mole.”

The InSight lander has only been on Mars for around six months of a mission that is expected to last at least two years if not significantly longer. With a long road ahead, it would be best if all of the robot’s instruments were working as intended, but we may have to wait a while before we know if the mole can be saved.