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The self-hammering probe on NASA & # 39; s Mars lander doesn't really seem to dig into the ground

NASA & # 39; s newest Mars lander is experiencing problems with one of its most important tools – a self-hammering probe that just doesn't seem to hammer itself into interplanetary dirt. On the weekend, the probe tried to dig itself into the bottom of Mars when it came up unexpectedly. Now NASA technicians are trying to solve problems to see if they can get this instrument under the surface of Mars as intended.

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The probe belongs to NASA's InSight lander, a small-sized robot that landed on Mars in November 2018. The goal of InSight is to find out what the inside of Mars is made of, and the lander has two primary tools that he uses to "look inside" the planet. The most important instrument is a seismometer, tuned to listen to marsquakes or vibrations in the crust of Mars. These quakes work a bit like ultrasound; the waves pass through the core of the planet and give details about what kind of materials it contains. So far, the InSight seismometer has detected about 100 vibration events, 21 of which are probably earthquakes.


An artistic representation of NASA's InSight lander on Mars, with its seismometer and heat probe deployed.
Image: NASA

The second main instrument from InSight is the heat probe, nicknamed the mole. It is supposed to hammer into the ground right next to InSight and record the temperature of Mars. If it works as planned, it could give scientists more information about how much heat leaves the interior of the planet. But the mole was not as lucky as the seismometer. In fact, it almost started to get into trouble as soon as InSight reached the Red Planet. Since it began digging at the end of February, it could travel no more than 14 inches (35 centimeters), although it was designed to dig up to 16 feet (5 meters).

The InSight team thinks that the ground around the mole can be to blame. While digging, the mole needs the soil to uniformly fall around the probe, creating friction that allows the instrument to hammer further under the soil. Otherwise it would just float up and down according to NASA. But tests have shown that the land at this specific location is different from the land that previous landers encountered on Mars. It lumps around the probe and provides no friction. That can explain the slow movement.

To get the mole tunneling as it should be, NASA engineers decided to use the InSight robotic arm to press against the mole as it tries to dig. The idea was to secure the mole against the side of the hole it created, to provide the necessary friction that it seems to be missing. It seemed to work over the past few weeks, but this weekend footage from the InSight lander showed that the probe was partially knocked out. Again, NASA blames & # 39; unusual soil conditions & # 39 ;.

Now the InSight team is trying to figure out what to do next. If it is safe, they can try to move the robot arm away from the mole lander to find out what is going on with the probe. If the worst-case scenario becomes reality and the probe cannot dig underground, this is not the end of the world for the InSight mission. The main purpose of the lander is to learn more about the core of Mars by listening to marsquakes, which it does successfully. Although obtaining a good temperature measurement from the interior of Mars would help characterize the intestines of the planet, it is not essential for the overall mission.