Rock and a hard place: InSight experiment encounters setback
Even the most successful robotic exploration missions sometimes encounter obstacles. This appears to case with NASA’s Mars InSight lander and its efforts to measure the interior temperature of the Red Planet.
On Feb. 28, the self-hammering probe of InSight’s Heat and Physical Properties Package instrument (HP3) got about three-fourths out of its housing before stopping. The probe is designed to dig up to 16 feet (5 meters) beneath the surface.
A second round of hammering on March 2 resulted in no significant progress. The probe, nicknamed the “mole,” appears to be at a 15 degree tilt and some 12 inches (30 centimeters) in the regolith, according to HP3 Principal Investigator Tilman Spohn, who is writing updates in a blog. He said the mole is probably still 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) in the tube of the support structure.
The mission team believes that the mole may have struck a rock or some gravel. Because there are very few rocks on the surface near the lander, it had been hope that there would be few below ground. According to NASA, the mole was designed to push small rocks out of its way, or to work its way around them.
The HP3 instrument, which was provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), successfully made its way past rocks multiple times during pre-launch testing.
“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,” Spohn said.
Spohn said the team had decided to pause the hammering for about two weeks in order to analyze the situation and devise a strategy for overcoming the obstacle.
“It is still healthy but, of course, Its life time is limited—in terms of hammering strokes it can make before it is worn down—although we are not concerned that it would break soon,” Spohn said in a March 6 blog post. “Still, the team wants to play it safe and get all the evidence that could become available including seismic data together to see how we can help the mole to overcome the obstacle.”
In the meantime, the team is set to make thermal conductivity measurements for the first time on the Red Planet. They also used a radiometer on the lander’s deck to observe temperature changes as Mars’ moon Phobos passed in front of the Sun.
Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.