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NASA’s InSight lander is winning the battle to free its stuck drill

Finally, some good news in this dark time, and it comes from another planet: Over on Mars, NASA’s InSight lander is finally making progress toward freeing its stuck drill.

The InSight lander has a suite of instruments including a heat probe for measuring temperatures, but the probe needs to be placed below the Martian surface to take accurate readings. So that requires the lander to drill into the soil using a piece of hardware called a mole, which hammers downward. However, the mole got stuck in the soil almost exactly one year ago, and NASA has been trying various techniques to free it since then. The problem is that the mole kept popping out of the soil, due to the soil not having the degree of friction that was expected.

The latest plan was to use the InSight lander’s robotic arm to push down on the end of the mole and push it deeper into the soil. The scientists believed that pushing on the end of the mole would provide sufficient force to hold it in place so it could “grab onto” the slippery soil and resume digging. And it seems to be working.

The official NASA InSight Twitter account shared an update on the status of InSight and its mole on Friday, March 13, and announced that progress was being made. It also shared a before and after image showing the mole sticking out of the ground in the before, and having moved downward slightly in the after image.

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


— NASA InSight (@NASAInSight) March 13, 2020

In a follow-up tweet, the team confirmed that the two images were taken approximately 30 minutes apart. However, the actual movement of the mole was fairly fast, requiring just a few minutes. The movement was achieved after “a couple of minutes of hammering” which involved a total of 25 hammer strokes in addition to the pushing force from InSight’s arm.

Now, the team will continue using this technique of pushing down on the mole with the robotic arm for several weeks, hopefully continuing to make progress. While doing so, they will also continue studying the soil that InSight is sitting on. Unlike the loose, sandy soils which were found on Mars by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the soil under InSight seems quite different and could tell scientists more about the history and geology of the planet.

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