NASA’s Mars InSight lander is facing a rocky road as its drill hits a rock

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NASA’s InSight lander set its heat probe, called the Heat and Physical Properties Package (HP3), on the Martian surface on February 12. NASA/JPL-Caltech/DLR

The InSight lander on Mars has run into trouble this week with its project to drill down into the surface to measure heat from inside the planet. The lander is equipped with a probe, part of the Heat and Physical Properties Package, or HP3 instrument, that was to dig up to 16 feet down into the surface so it could collect accurate data on temperatures.

The drilling began on Thursday February 28 and continued without issues for the first few days. But once the probe had reached approximately three quarters of the depth it was aiming for, it stopped. The InSight team tried to restart with a second bout of drilling on Saturday March 2 but to no avail, and the probe didn’t reach any deeper. Data now suggests that the probe is tilted at an angle of 15 degrees.

The scientists responsible for the probe believe that it may have hit a rock, or possibly gravel. As there were few rocks on the surface of the drilling site, the team had hoped that there wouldn’t be rocks beneath the surface either. But they knew there was a risk that they would get unlucky a hit a rock which impeded drilling.

The tip of the probe, called the mole, was designed to push aside smaller rocks or to weave around larger ones, and this capacity worked well in testing before the probe was launched. But for now the team has decided to stop drilling and see what data they can gather from the probe’s current location.

“The team has … decided to pause the hammering for about two weeks to allow the situation to be analyzed more closely and jointly come up with strategies for overcoming the obstacle,” HP3 Principal Investigator Tilman Spohn of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) wrote in a blog post. “In the meantime, we are planning on carrying out thermal conductivity measurements for the first time on Mars … A lot to do and still a lot of excellent science to be expected from HP3 and from InSight!”

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