NASA’s InSight lander is part of NASA’s budget-minded Discovery program, but it’s accomplishing a surprising number of “firsts” on Mars in spite of the smaller budget. It was the first mission to take seismic readings on another planet and the first to record the sound of Martian winds. Now, it’s got a shot at being the first to study the internal temperature of Mars — NASA’s plan to nudge the lander’s subsurface probe with the robot arm appears to be working.
InSight landed at Elysium Planitia on Mars back in late 2018. NASA’s first order of business was to deploy the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS). NASA surveyed the area around InSight and built a model of the area here on Earth to conduct test runs before doing the real thing. That part of the mission went perfectly — InSight has been recording marsquakes since last year. Although, the intensity of those quakes is lower than the team had hoped.
Things haven’t been as smooth for the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3). This “self-hammering nail” was supposed to burrow into the ground and take temperature readings every 10 centimeters. However, NASA quickly found the probe made little progress attempting to dig down through the Martian soil. The probe even popped back up while attempting to drive itself deeper. Scientists have speculated that the Martian soil might be so fine that it falls back in the hole ahead of the probe with each push.
A bit of good news from #Mars: our new approach of using the robotic arm to push the mole appears to be working! The teams @NASAJPL/@DLR_en are excited to see the images and plan to continue this approach over the next few weeks. 💪 #SaveTheMole
FAQ: https://t.co/wnhp7c1gPT pic.twitter.com/5wYyn7IwVo
— NASA InSight (@NASAInSight) March 13, 2020
Starting last month, NASA engineers began a new and less subtle approach to getting the mole into the ground. They decided to use the shovel end of the lander’s robotic arm to push the HP3 down as it attempted to dig downward. This was something of a last-ditch effort as the probe is extremely fragile. The team worried the robotic arm would lack the finesse to help the mole downward without breaking anything. However, the HP3 is finally making progress.
NASA posted a GIF on Twitter showing the HP3 making a few inches of progress. That’s far from the target depth of 10-16 feet, but any progress is a good thing after months of failures. The arm will only be able to help the probe along until it disappears below the surface, but the more compacted soil at that depth might allow the probe’s digging mechanism to work as intended.
NASA Halts InSight Drilling Instrument on Mars After Hitting ObstacleNASA Puzzled as InSight Drilling Instrument Pops Back Out of Martian SurfaceInSight Lander Shows Marsquakes Are More Numerous Than Expected