An engineering model of the InSight lander.
A test using an engineering model of the InSight lander on Earth shows how the spacecraft on Mars will use its robotic arm to press on a digging device, called the ‘mole.’ (NASA photo)

Troubleshooting from an entirely different planet, engineers on Earth have crafted a plan for dealing with a problematic heat probe on NASA’s Mars InSight lander.

The mission team developed the plans after unsuccessfully trying to dig into the Martian surface for the past year.

The solution involves instructing the scoop on InSight’s robotic arm to press down on the “mole,” the mini pile driver designed to hammer itself up to 16 feet below the Red Planet’s surface.

“They hope that pushing down on the mole’s top, also called the back cap, will keep it from backing out of its hole on Mars, as it did twice in recent months after nearly burying itself,” NASA said, adding they hope the solutions enables the heat probe in taking Mars’ temperature..

InSight — short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — launched aboard United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base on a very foggy May 5, 2018, morning.

The liftoff marked the first interplanetary mission from the Central Coast in more than 50 years.

But the launch site wasn’t the only Central Coast connection. The solar arrays, vital for keeping InSight’s batteries charged, were crafted at what now is called Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems in Goleta.

Upon liftoff, the spacecraft journeyed to Mars, arriving Nov. 26, 2018.

InSight carried multiple instruments designed to help scientists learn about the interior of Mars. Tools included a seismometer for detecting quakes, sensors for assessing wind and air pressure, a magnetometer, and the problematic heat flow probe designed to take the planet’s temperature.

The mole became stuck on Feb. 28, 2019, the first day of hammering.

The InSight team has since determined that the soil at the landing site differs from what has been encountered on other parts of Mars. 

NASA’s Mars InSight lander.

NASA’s Mars InSight lander recently moved its robotic arm closer to the heat probe’s digging device, called the ‘mole,’ in preparation to push on its top, or back cap. The InSight team hopes that pushing on this location will enable a heat probe to take Mars’ temperature. (NASA photo)

InSight apparently touched down in an area with an unusually thick duricrust, or a layer of cemented soil. Scientists had expected loose and sand-like soil, but instead have found the dirt granules stick together.

“The mole needs friction from soil in order to travel downward; without it, recoil from its self-hammering action causes it to simply bounce in place,” NASA said. “Ironically, loose soil, not duricrust, provides that friction as it falls around the mole.”

The team previously has avoided pushing on the mole’s top to avoid damaging a fragile component equipped with temperature sensors.

Engineers have a model set up on Earth — specifically at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — to help them test drive solutions before putting them into practice on the Red Planet.

Despite the snafu, the Mars lander has delivered scientists some surprises with its findings from above and below the Red Planet.

Six papers published recently reveal some of the scientific findings, including that Mars has quakes, dust devils and strange magnetic pulses, according to NASA.

For instance, InSight has detected more than 450 seismic signals, which scientists say likely came from marsquakes. 

Since its arrival, InSight also has captured more than 4,000 images and collected data about the weather on the planet.

InSight is designed to operate for a full Martian year, which is the equivalent of two Earth years.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.