Hooray, space boffins have finally got InSight lander's heat probe back into Martian ground again

The beloved mole hasn't been able to dig into the Red Planet's regolith for ages

NASA’s Insight lander is back in business after the agency reported that its "mole," a digging probe designed to burrow into the martian soil, is now back in action after suffering months of mishaps.

Tilman Spohn, the principal investigator for the instrument officially known as the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), revealed that the mole has finally entered the ground after being repeatedly bashed with a scoop attached onto its robotic arm.

“We started about seven centimeters above the surface on Sol 458 (11 March) and we are now at the surface with the scoop on Sol 536 (30 May), after six cycles of hammering over 11 weeks,” he said.

The mole is designed to dig up to five meters below the Martian regolith to measure the planet’s internal temperature using a sensor located at its tip. But after burrowing for just 30 centimeters, it petered out. Scientists were left baffled, and thought that maybe the mole had hit a rock or that there wasn’t enough friction in the soil.

The last attempt to fix the device last year in October pushed the mole further by a few centimeters, only for it to pop back out again. Now, it seems that scientists have managed to get it back into position. The next test, however, is to see whether it can dig on its own, something the team calls “the free mole test”.

“The free mole test will be very exciting,” Spohn wrote. “But what if the mole is just not deep enough for sufficient friction? We then have two options, either fill the pit to provide more friction and push on the regolith, or use the scoop to push at the back-cap again, but this time with its tip rather than with its flat bottom surface. This would be a somewhat more difficult operation but doable, as the Instrument Deployment Arm team thinks.”

“In addition, winter is approaching on Mars’ northern hemisphere and dust storm season will begin soon. The atmosphere is already getting dustier and the power generated by the solar panels is decreasing. This may affect our ability to performing energy consuming operations with the arm in the near future. Stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed,” he concluded. ®

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