NASA nears last resort in mission to coax its InSight probe into digging Martian soil by using a robotic arm to ‘push’ the instrument back into position

  • InSight’s robotic arm will attempt to push a probe further into Martian soil
  • The probe has had trouble digging into Mars’ soil over the past year
  • Previous attempts to fix the issue worked temporarily
  • If the maneuver doesn’t work NASA will try to add soil to create more friction 

NASA is running out of options in its mission to get its InSight lander’s probe back on track.

According to the agency, it will attempt to use a robotic arm attached to its InSight Lander to push down on a probe meant to drill into Martian soil which has struggled to achieve its mission throughout the past year.

NASA says the goal is to stop the probe from popping out of its partially dug hole which it has done twice in recent months in addition to almost burying itself.

While the act of pushing down on the probe with the arm should be relatively easy, NASA acknowledges that choosing to do so could create problems for the instrument if too much force is applied.

The worry is that pushing down with the arm may damage a ribbon-like stretch of wires that attaches to InSight. 

These wires deliver crucial data to the lander on the temperature of Mars’ soil and enable one of its primary missions.

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Previous attempts to readjust the probe by pressing it to one side using the arm were somewhat successful in helping it dig further into the soil, but according to NASA it caused the instrument to pop out of its hole on multiple occasions. 

In March, after less than a year on Mars’ surface, NASA’s InSight Lander reported that the critical instrument – called the ‘mole’ since it’s  designed to burrow into the planet and assess heat emissions – hit a snag.

For several months, the probe, which was meant to bore 16 feet downward, was trapped just 30 centimeters beneath the planet’s surface after less than a month into its burrowing process.

Initially, scientists posited that the probe – which consists of a spike and a tether – may have gotten stuck on a particularly strong rock, but observations determined unforeseen properties of the Martian soil were to blame. 

Scientist originally believed that once the mole began hammering away at the surface it would break away at the rock and sediment would form around the probe creating friction.

The tether (pictured) attached to the probe is sensitive and could get damaged during the maneuver according to NASA

The tether (pictured) attached to the probe is sensitive and could get damaged during the maneuver according to NASA

 

Instead, the soil appears to have caked together and moved away from the instrument, creating empty space between the spike and the surface.

If the maneuver doesn’t work, NASA said it will also consider scooping more soil back into the hole with InSight’s robotic arm to create more pressure and friction.    

NASA is no stranger to encountering problems with its Mars missions. In 2009, the rover, Spirit, was trapped in a sandpit and unable to reach a vantage high enough to charge is systems with solar panels.

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Similarly, the Mars rover Opportunity became trapped in a giant sandstorm last year and blocked sunlight long enough to lose communications with the device.

WHAT ARE INSIGHT’S THREE KEY INSTRUMENTS?

The lander that could reveal how Earth was formed: InSight lander set for Mars landing on november 26th

The lander that could reveal how Earth was formed: InSight lander set for Mars landing on november 26th

Three key instruments will allow the InSight lander to ‘take the pulse’ of the red planet:

Seismometer: The InSight lander carries a seismometer, SEIS, that listens to the pulse of Mars. 

The seismometer records the waves travelling through the interior structure of a planet. 

Studying seismic waves tells us what might be creating the waves. 

On Mars, scientists suspect that the culprits may be marsquakes, or meteorites striking the surface. 

Heat probe: InSight’s heat flow probe, HP3, burrows deeper than any other scoops, drills or probes on Mars before it. 

It will investigate how much heat is still flowing out of Mars. 

Radio antennas: Like Earth, Mars wobbles a little as it rotates around its axis. 

To study this, two radio antennas, part of the RISE instrument, track the location of the lander very precisely. 

This helps scientists test the planet’s reflexes and tells them how the deep interior structure affects the planet’s motion around the Sun.

 



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