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NASA’s InSight lander finally buries its probe beneath Martian surface

NASA’s InSight lander has been struggling on Mars for more than a year. Although the lander is taking great readings of marsquakes beneath the planet’s surface and has even captured the sounds of Mars, it has had problems with burying its heat probe in the martian ground. Now, the heat probe has successfully made it beneath the surface, leaving the scientists and engineers hopeful that it will be able to get back to its mission of collecting temperature information from inside the planet.

The problem occurred because the martian soil around the lander is just a little bit different than expected. The soil tends to stick together in clumps, and that makes it hard for the heat probe, also known as the mole, to grab onto. The mole needs friction to move through the soil, but it has struggled, and when it used it hammering action to try to get deeper, it popped out of the hole entirely. So the team has used techniques like pushing on the end of the mole with the lander’s robotic arm to force it into place.

This technique seems to have worked out, with a recent series of images taken by InSight’s camera showing the mole now buried beneath the soil.

NASA’s InSight retracted its robotic arm on Oct. 3, 2020, revealing where the spike-like “mole” is trying to burrow into Mars. The copper-colored ribbon attached to the mole has sensors to measure the planet’s heat flow. In the coming months, the arm will scrape and tamp down soil on top of the mole to help it dig. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
“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,” Troy Hudson, the scientist and engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who led the work on the mole, said in a statement. “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.”

To make entirely sure that the mole is safe and secure, the InSight team will now spend some more time using a scoop on the end of the lander’s robotic arm to pick up soil and place it on top of the mole. The hope is that this additional soil will create more friction and prevent the mole from popping out of its hole again. This will take some time though, so the team isn’t expecting the mole to start hammering down to its desired depth until next year.

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