There's a mole rescue mission unfolding on Mars, and it has just completed a crucial maneuver.
An instrument nicknamed the "mole" on NASA's InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander has been experiencing some difficulty getting a deep survey of Mars. On Feb. 28, the mole began digging, but it soon appeared to be stuck, and the mission team was forced to command the mole to halt so engineers could come up with a solution.
Now, the team is "elated," according to the space agency, because InSight's robotic arm successfully removed the mole's surrounding support structure on Friday (June 28). The team now can get a look at the mole and perhaps figure out what's wrong, NASA officials said.
The mole is a self-hammering spike belonging to InSight's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, and much like its terrestrial namesake, the instrument is meant to dig deep. But according to NASA, the spike has not been able to tunnel down further than 12 inches (30 centimeters). InSight's engineers are relieved to have successfully removed the support structure, because they should now be able to more accurately diagnose the problem.
"We've completed the first step in our plan to save the mole," InSight mission engineer Troy Hudson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said in a statement published Monday (July 1) detailing the procedure. "We're not done yet. But for the moment, the entire team is elated because we're that much closer to getting the mole moving again."
Martian dirt may be the culprit. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) — which provided HP3 — found that the material may not give the kind of friction that would "balance the recoil from the self-hammering motion," NASA officials said. The mole wasn't designed for this type of scenario, and might "simply bounce in place rather than dig," they added.
A big rock could also be causing the standstill. The mole is designed to move small rocks aside, but something large could be blocking the way.
Fortunately, InSight's other gear are allowing the team to figure out a potential solution. Camera imagery has come in handy in assessing the qualities of Martian soil, and will soon take detailed pictures of the mole to gain more information. And the crucial lift itself was executed by the very same claw-enabled arm that first deployed all of the lander's instruments after its arrival on Mars in November.
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- There's a 'Mole' on Mars Now, Thanks to NASA's InSight Lander
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Editor's note: This story was updated at 12 p.m. EDT on July 2 to clarify that InSight lifted the mole's support structure from the ground, not the mole itself.