The Mars InSight mole’s role will end, but other aspects of the mission will continue for another two years, NASA officials said.
InSight — which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — launched aboard an Atlas V rocket that blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on a foggy May 5, 2018, morning. It was the first interplanetary mission after hundreds of blastoffs from the base and was designed to study the interior of the Red Planet.
The spacecraft’s solar arrays were crafted in Goleta at the now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems facility (then known as Orbital ATK), where employees cheered the Red Planet landing on Nov. 26, 2018.
The mole, or heat probe, has vexed the team because of the Red Planet’s soil unexpectedly clumping and preventing the spike-like instrument from getting the friction needed to hammer itself to an adequate depth, NASA officials said.
Since Feb. 28, 2019, the probe developed and built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has been attempting to dig into the Martian surface to take the planet’s internal temperature, which scientists hoped would provide details about Mars’ evolution and geology.
After getting the top of the instrument approximately 1 inch under the surface, the team tried one final fix with no progress and called an end to efforts.
Originally, they had hoped to reach a depth of 10 feet with the 16-inch-long tool that makes up an instrument called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3).
“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” HP3’s principal investigator, Tilman Spohn of DLR, said. “Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface.”
As problems popped up, the team worked from a different planet to find a fix.
“We are so proud of our team, who worked hard to get InSight’s mole deeper into the planet. It was amazing to see them troubleshoot from millions of miles away,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“This is why we take risks at NASA — we have to push the limits of technology to learn what works and what doesn’t,” Zurbuchen said. “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 mole’s design was based on soil seen by previous Mars missions, but the soil that InSight’s mole encountered proved very different, NASA 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,” said Troy Hudson, a scientist and engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has led efforts to get the mole deeper into the Martian crust. “Having had the opportunity to take this all the way to the end is the greatest reward.”
Despite the misbehaving mole, NASA still granted other aspects of the Mars mission another two years of operations — through December 2022.
InSight’s seismometer has collected data about so-called marquakes, and the extended mission will focus on producing a long-duration, high-quality seismic dataset, NASA officials said.
In a little more than one Martian year — 687 Earth days — since landing to study the planet’s deep interior, the stationary craft has detected more than 480 quakes and collected the most comprehensive weather data of any surface mission sent to Mars, according to NASA.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.