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NASA InSight Probe Mission Halted: Any Hope Mole Could Continue Digging Mars Tunnel?

NASA scientists’ greatest fear prior to launching the InSight lander to Mars has just happened. The lander’s probe is now stuck after boring only a foot into the Red Planet’s ground. Is there hope for the mission to realise its goal?

When the Insight lander touched down on Mars last November, the spacecraft immediately started to work on its mission by deploying a probe, also referred to as a “mole.” The probe, named Heat and Physical Properties Package or HP3, is designed to dig into the ground while studying how heat dissipates under the Martian surface. 

On Feb. 28, the mole started burrowing underground. Unfortunately, after four hours or 4,000 hammer blows, the probe hit a blockage, possibly a rock, and stopped functioning. Last Saturday, March 2, NASA scientists attempted to revive the mission but to no avail. 

The landing site of the probe, the Jezero Crater, was actually chosen by the scientists because its surface is found to be sandy and contained only a few rocks and it’s also believed to be deep. However, there was no way of telling if the ground underneath it also has few solid mineral materials. 

Data transmitted by InSight revealed that apart from hitting an obstacle, the mole has now tilted 15 degrees away from the vertical. From the get-go, NASA scientists were already aware of this risk. That’s why the German instrument team designed the probe to get around rocky obstacles. But for now, the probe is stick and will remain stationary for the next two weeks. 

“The team has decided to pause the hammering for now to allow the situation to be analyzed more closely and jointly come up with strategies for overcoming the obstacle,” Tilman Spohn, HP3 principal investigator at the German Aerospace Center, said in a blog post

Analysis on the data sent to Earth showed that the 40cm-long mole has barely gotten out of the tube that guides its descent. While the mole isn’t doing any digging for the time being, it will still be capable of examining the Martian soil. The HP3 sensors can conduct its first temperature measurements and this could already provide a great deal of information about the Martian subsurface. 

However, it would still make a big difference if the mole were able to fully realize its mission of digging up to 5m into the ground. Once this is done, the probe can measure how quickly heat dissipates under the Red Planet’s land, according to Space.com. This would then help scientists understand the natural heat coming from inside the planet and give more valuable information about Mars’ formation.

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