Space and science fans, rejoice, for there is good news from the Red Planet this week. The InSight heat probe, which launched its mission back in 2018, has finally completely buried itself on Mars. While this might not seem like news, your perspective might shift when you learn that until now, the self-hammering drill has experienced numerous challenges and setbacks that have hindered its mission to drill into the core of Mars and collect valuable data, including temperature readings.
The InSight was built by the German space agency (DLR) and is being operated by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The lander arrived at Elysium Planitia back in November of 2018 and has struggled to clear the planet's surface since then. The probe's "mole" - a 16-inch-long pile driver and heat probe - has been causing the dirt to clump together because of its self-hammering action. This forms a gap around the device rather than the dirt collapsing around it, and unfortunately NASA can't simply pick up the mole and try digging elsewhere.
According to NASA, "sensors embedded in the tether are designed to measure heat flowing from the planet once the mole has dug at least 10 feet (3 meters) deep. The mission team has been working to help the mole burrow to at least that depth so that it can take Mars' temperature.
The mole was designed so that loose soil would flow around it, providing friction against its outer hull so that it can dig deeper; without this friction, the mole just bounces in place as it hammers into the ground. But the soil where InSight landed is different than what previous missions have encountered: During hammering, the soil sticks together, forming a small pit around the device instead of collapsing around it and providing the necessary friction."
Last year, in order to prevent the mole from moving in the wrong direction, mission planners used InSight's scoop to try and pin the probe to the bottom of the pit and keep it in the ground. This worked until July, when the probe stopped descending because of duricrust (a cement-like mixture in which granules stick together). NASA suspended the digging for a short while in order to utilize InSight's arm for other tasks, but now it's back to being a mole and it appears to be working better this time.
"I'm very glad we were able to recover from the unexpected 'pop-out' event we experienced and get the mole deeper than it’s ever been," said Troy Hudson, the scientist and engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the work to get the mole digging. "But we're not quite done. We want to make sure there's enough soil on top of the mole to enable it to dig on its own without any assistance from the arm."
Hooray for the Mars InSight! Isn't space exploration cool?
To learn more about the mission and this specific development, check out NASA's website.