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That Mars ‘mole’ is just not working, so NASA is giving up

Published Jan 20th, 2021 10:15PM EST
nasa insight

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  • NASA’s InSight mission to Mars has returned a lot of valuable data, but one of its instruments has fallen well short of expectations.
  • The self-hammering “mole” tool was supposed to burrow deep beneath the Martian surface, but it’s failed miserably.
  • After months and months of trial and error, NASA is officially giving up on the mole and has decided to stop messing with it.

NASA has a long history of overperforming on the Red Planet. Its rovers have performed so well that some of them have lasted for years and even decades longer than they were designed to. That’s pretty awesome, but inevitably there will times when things don’t quite go the way that NASA planned.

The Mars InSight mission is one of those times. Now, to be totally clear, much of what the InSight lander has accomplished during its time on Mars has been great. Most of its instruments and tools have performed exactly as intended. However, if you’ve read anything about InSight over the past year or so, it’s probably because of one of its tools that just hasn’t done its job: the self-hammering “mole” tool.

The first signs of trouble began shortly after the lander touched down on Mars. The mole just didn’t seem to be able to dig deeper than a few inches, when it was supposed to reach a depth of over 10 feet at a minimum. NASA tried several techniques in the following months to try to get the mole to dig, but nothing worked.

They tried to reposition the mole so it had a better shot at digging, they tried to push against the soil surrounding the mole so it could get a grip and enough traction to push itself deeper, and they even tried just forcing it into the hole by slamming down on its “butt,” so to speak, but to no avail. No matter what NASA’s InSight team seemed to do, it didn’t allow the rover to dig for any significant distance, and after wasting so much time trying to get it to work, the team has decided its effort is best spent elsewhere.

“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” Tilman Spohn, the principal investigator working with the instrument, said in a statement. “Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface.”

Going forward, no more time will be spent trying to get the probe to work, and its potential to provide subsurface temperature readings and expand our knowledge of Mars is being abandoned. The lander, however, will continue to work with the rest of its instrument suite and return valuable data to Earth.

“We are so proud of our team who worked hard to get InSight’s mole deeper into the planet. It was amazing to see them troubleshoot from millions of miles away,” NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said. “This is why we take risks at NASA – we have to push the limits of technology to learn what works and what doesn’t. In that sense, we’ve been successful: We’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions to Mars and elsewhere, and we thank our German partners from DLR for providing this instrument and for their collaboration.”