NASA InSight’s ‘mole’ fails mission after two years on Mars – ‘We’ve given it everything’

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NASA’s InSight probe is the first of its kind mission to explore the interior of the Red Planet. After landing on Mars in November 2018, the probe has been listening and collecting data on tremors and rumbles that could tell us more about what is happening deep underground. The mission is comprised of three scientific instruments attached to a central lander, one of which is a heat probe dubbed the “mole”.

The mole or The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) was designed to burrow almost 16ft into the Martian surface.

According to NASA, this is deeper than any probe before InSight has dug, scooped or drilled into Mars.

The US space agency said: “Like studying the heat leaving a car engine, it measures the heat coming from Mars’ interior to reveal how much heat is flowing out of the body of the planet, and what the source of the heat is.”

Unfortunately for NASA, Mars has proven a tough nut for the mole to crack and the instrument has been retired last week.

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The mole has been attempting to burrow into Mars using a simple hammering motion.

But as the 16-inch spike-like device hammered into the planet, the soil around it clumped up and there was not enough friction for the mole to dig deeper.

NASA’s engineers at first attempted to salvage the mole by pushing it down with InSight’s robotic arm.

When that only managed to get the probe about one inch into the ground, InSight’s robotic arm was used again to scoop up soil onto the probe.

But even this rescue attempt failed and after 500 additional hammer strokes did not make the probe budge, the instrument was retired on January 9 this year.

Tilman Spohn of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which built the instrument, said: “We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible.

“Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface.”

The mole was built to measure’s Mars’s subsurface temperatures but only below depths of 10ft (3m).

No mission before InSight has attempted to dig this deep into the planet.

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Troy Hudson, a scientist and engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said: “The mole is a device with no heritage. What we attempted to do – to dig so deep with a device so small – is unprecedented.

“Having had the opportunity to take this all the way to the end is the greatest reward.”

And yet, despite this setback, NASA’s scientists believe there is a silver lining.

The failure has shed some light on the properties of Martian soil, which to date have only ever been tested by remote rovers and probes, although this could change with NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA HQ in Washington, said: “We are so proud of our team who worked hard to get InSight’s mole into the planet.

“It was amazing to see them troubleshoot from millions of miles away.

“This is why we take risks at NASA – we have to push the limits of technology to learn what works and what doesn’t. In that sense, we’ve been successful.

“We’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions to Mars and elsewhere, and we thank our German partners from DLR for providing this instrument and for their collaboration.”

The rest of the InSight mission also looks to be in good shape and NASA believes there is “much more science to come”.

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