Engineers are Still Troubleshooting Why Mars InSight’s Mole is Stuck and Won’t Go Any Deeper

NASA’s Mars InSight Lander was always a bit of a tricky endeavour. The stationary lander has one chance to get things right, since it can’t move. While initially the mission went well, and the landing site looked good, the Mole is having trouble penetrating deep enough to fulfill its mission.

InSight landed on Mars on November 26, 2018. It’s landing spot is in the Elysium Planitia, a broad plain on the Martian equator. It’s objective is to study the interior of Mars and learn about how that planned was formed and shaped.

It has several instruments, including the “Mole” or the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe, HP3 for short. The Mole is designed to penetrate the surface of Mars, where it can take accurate measurements of the heat flowing from the interior of the planet.

The InSight team had to choose a suitable spot to penetrate the surface, but they couldn’t see anything beneath the drilling spot. At first, the Mole was doing fine, hammering its way into Mars. But then it stopped.

The Mole, or HP3, is the German Aerospace Center’s(DLR) contribution to the InSight lander. They were able to get the probe 30 cm (11.8 inches) into the surface, but then on February 28th, it stopped. And so far, they’ve been unable to make any progress beyond the initial 30 cm.

Both the DLR and NASA have replicas of the Heat Flow Probe in test areas at facilities in the US and Germany. They’ve been running tests to see how they can proceed, but up until now they’ve been stymied.

“We are now rather sure that the insufficient grip from the soil around the Mole is a problem.”

Tilman Spohn, Principal Investigator for the HP3 experiment at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research.

In a new press release, the DLR says that there may be insufficient friction to allow proper operation of the probe, due to the lower gravity at Mars. They also think that small cavities have formed between the probe and the soil, inhibiting the hammering action of the probe.

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