NASA Will ‘Pause’ Attempts to Deploy InSight’s Heat Probe on Mars
The InSight lander has been trying to deploy its heat probe instrument for months, but it’s going to take a break. This probe was supposed to dig down to take the planet’s temperature, but NASA has only made progress when nudging the probe along with the lander’s robotic arm. The latest data suggests the probe isn’t moving anymore, so NASA has decided to “pause” this part of the mission and use the arm for other important work.
InSight landed on Mars in late 2018, and NASA set to work mapping out the area around it. After building a model of the lander’s surroundings, NASA chose the best spot to deploy the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument. The lander had SEIS up and running a few months later, allowing NASA to turn its attention to the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3). This instrument, sometimes called the “mole,” is essentially a self-hammering nail that was supposed to reach a depth of about five meters (16 feet) all on its own. Alas, it proved much more challenging than SEIS.
The InSight team found the HP3 could only dig down several inches before it stalled and eventually popped back out. NASA has speculated that the Martian soil is so fine that it continuously falls back into the hole each time the probe tries to hammer itself down deeper. In March, NASA decided to push the probe with the robotic arm to keep it from backtracking, and that appeared to work at first. However, the probe is now completely underground, and it seems to have stalled without the arm to keep pushing.
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Video of the lander from June 20th (above) shows soil vibrating and jumping on the arm’s scoop. NASA believes this is due to the HP3 tapping the bottom of the arm as it bounces back with each failed attempt to move deeper. The team has decided the arm will back away, allowing the lander to get images of the mole’s current state. This could help NASA properly diagnose the problem and find a solution. More likely, it will just have to change the design of similar instruments in the future to account for Mars’ unusual soil properties.
InSight’s robotic arm has other jobs to do. NASA wants to use the arm to get a selfie of the lander, but not just for fun. The team needs to see how much dust has accumulated on the stationary robot’s solar panels. The arm cameras will also do a little astronomy on Mars, scanning the sky for meteors entering the Martian atmosphere. The team knows the mole’s situation isn’t likely to improve during the pause, but there are still a few things to try. In particular, the team is working on a plan to dump loose material into the hole in hopes of providing the needed friction.
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