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‘Mole’ Probe on JPL’s InSight Lander Gets Stuck

Published on Tuesday, January 19, 2021 | 12:09 pm
 
NASA’s InSight Mars lander, built and managed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is pictured in an illustration. (CREDIT: JPL/IPGP/Nicolas Sarter)

NASA has ended the scientific mission of a heat-detecting, subterranean probe attached to NASA’s InSight Mars lander after concluding it was unable to dig its way into the Martian soil, according to Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Despite nearly two months of efforts, scientists have determined the scoop-like “mole” affixed to the lander, which was designed to dig down into the ground on Mars and gather information about the Red Planet’s internal temperature, was stymied by unexpectedly clumpy soil, according to a JPL statement.

“The soil’s unexpected tendency to clump deprived the spike-like mole of the friction it needs to hammer itself to a sufficient depth,” the statement said.

“After getting the top of the mole about 2 or 3 centimeters under the surface, the team tried one last time to use a scoop on InSight’s robotic arm to scrape soil onto the probe and tamp it down to provide added friction,” the statement continued. “After the probe conducted 500 additional hammer strokes on Saturday, Jan. 9, with no progress, the team called an end to their efforts.”

The “mole” probe attached to NASA’s InSight Mars lander, built and managed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is pictured in an animation provided by JPL.

The mole instrument was developed and built by the German Aerospace Center, or DLR.

Although the instrument did not perform as hoped, it still provided valuable information to help guide future explorations, said NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen.

“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,” 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,” he said. “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.”

Had it been successful, the mole probe would have provided scientists with their first glimpse into the interior of Mars, said JPL Scientist and Engineer Troy Hudson.

“The mole is a device with no heritage. What we attempted to do —– to dig so deep with a device so small — is unprecedented,” he said. “Having had the opportunity to take this all the way to the end is the greatest reward.”

But the mole is just one tool aboard the lander, which just saw its mission extended through December 2022.

“Along with hunting for quakes, the lander hosts a radio experiment that is collecting data to reveal whether the planet’s core is liquid or solid,” the JPL statement said. “And InSight’s weather sensors are capable of providing some of the most detailed meteorological data ever collected on Mars. Together with weather instruments aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover and its new Perseverance rover, which lands on Feb. 18, the three spacecraft will create the first meteorological network on another planet.”

More information on the InSight mission is available online at mars.nasa.gov/insight.

See also:

‘Mole’ Probe on JPL’s InSight Mars Lander Disappears Into Martian Soil

NASA Extends Missions for JPL-Managed Juno, InSight Space Probes

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