NASA's Mars Lander Just Hit Itself with a Shovel

A long-running operation to burrow a heat probe into the surface of Mars appears to be making progress — with a little help from a shovel scoop attached to a robotic arm.

The NASA mission called InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) is based around a lander that uses various high-tech instruments to dig into the planet surface and measure "vital signs," including seismology and temperature.

The plan hit a snag on February 28 last year — the first dig attempt — when a probe nicknamed "the mole" became stuck. Attempts to help it burrow have been ongoing ever since.

Initially, NASA tried to use the robot arm on the lander to press the side of the mole while avoiding critical components on the probe's top — known as the back cap.

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But after multiple failed attempts, scientists decided to use the scoop on the end of the arm to press the back cap while trying to avoid the tether. It appears to be working.

"A bit of good news from Mars," the NASA InSight team tweeted last Friday. "Our new approach of using the robotic arm to push the mole appears to be working! The teams are excited to see the images and plan to continue this approach over the next few weeks."

According to NASA, the mole is part of an instrument called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3. It's a 16-inch-long probe that was designed with an "internal hammering mechanism" to help dig down and measure heat from deeper inside the planet.

It was supposed to be six feet down by now. Unfortunately, the InSight team quickly found the soil where the lander was placed was different from other regions of Mars already explored.

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"InSight landed in an area with an unusually thick duricrust, or a layer of cemented soil. Rather than being loose and sand-like, as expected, the dirt granules stick together," NASA explained in a blog post detailing the most-recent operation to push the top of the probe, published last month.

HP3 was provided to NASA by the German Aerospace Center, or DLR.

Tilman Spohn, who is a principal investigator of the HP3 experiment and a former director of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, released a mission log about progress last month.

He wrote, "After weighing all the options, we decided not to use the pinning technique again but rather press the scoop against the Mole's back cap.

The scientist added: "One argument for this decision was that we wanted to have the Mole below the surface anyway. However, that...would require eventual back-cap pushing. In addition, after the team's experience of operating the scoop, we all became more confident that the risk of accidental damage to the tether (with its power and data lines) was small enough to be worth taking."

According to Popular Science, preliminary findings suggest the mole has burrowed up to half an inch, but the InSight team is reluctant to say if the rescue mission will be a total success. "If that doesn't help... we'll have to conclude that probably there is a stone down there," Spohn told the publication.

NASA - the mole
NASA's Mars InSight lander moved its robotic arm closer to the heat probe's digging device, called the "mole," in preparation to push on its top, or back cap. NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA's Mars Lander Just Hit Itself with a Shovel | Tech & Science