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Mars InSight's mole has partially backed out of its hole

(28 October 2019 - JPL) After making progress over the past several weeks digging into the surface of Mars, InSight's mole has backed about halfway out of its hole this past weekend.

Preliminary assessments point to unusual soil conditions on the Red Planet. The international mission team is developing the next steps to get it buried again.

A scoop on the end of the arm has been used in recent weeks to "pin" the mole against the wall of its hole, providing friction it needs to dig. The next step is determining how safe it is to move InSight's robotic arm away from the mole to better assess the situation. The team continues to look at the data and will formulate a plan in the next few days.

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In this image from Oct. 26, 2019 — the 325th Martian day, or sol, of the mission — InSight's heat probe, or "mole," is seen after backing about halfway out of the hole it had burrowed. (courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Meantime, the lander's seismometer — the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, or, SEIS — continues to collect data on marsquakes in order to provide a better understanding of the Mars interior and why Earth and the Red Planet are so different today after sharing similarities billions of years ago. The French space agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES) and its partners provided the SEIS instrument to NASA.

NASA's InSight spacecraft has used its robotic arm to help its heat probe, known as "the mole," dig nearly 2 centimeters (3/4 of an inch) over the past week. While modest, the movement is significant: Designed to dig as much as 16 feet (5 meters) underground to gauge the heat escaping from the planet's interior, the mole has only managed to partially bury itself since it started hammering in February 2019.

The recent movement is the result of a new strategy, arrived at after extensive testing on Earth, which found that unexpectedly strong soil is holding up the mole's progress. The mole needs friction from surrounding soil in order to move: Without it, recoil from its self-hammering action will cause it to simply bounce in place. Pressing the scoop on InSight's robotic arm against the mole, a new technique called "pinning," appears to provide the probe with the friction it needs to continue digging.

Since Oct. 8, 2019, the mole has hammered 220 times over three separate occasions. Images sent down from the spacecraft's cameras have shown the mole gradually progressing into the ground. It will take more time — and hammering — for the team to see how far the mole can go.

The mole is part of an instrument called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3, which was provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

"Seeing the mole's progress seems to indicate that there's no rock blocking our path," said HP3 Principal Investigator Tilman Spohn of DLR. "That's great news! We're rooting for our mole to keep going."

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leads the InSight mission. JPL has tested the robotic arm's movement using full-scale replicas of InSight and the mole. Engineers continue to test what would happen if the mole were to sink beneath the reach of the robotic arm. If it stops making progress, they might scrape soil on top of the mole, adding mass to resist the mole's recoil.

If no other options exist, they would consider pressing the scoop down directly on the top of the mole while trying to avoid the sensitive tether there; the tether provides power to and relays data from the instrument.

"The mole still has a way to go, but we're all thrilled to see it digging again," said Troy Hudson of JPL, an engineer and scientist who has led the mole recovery effort. "When we first encountered this problem, it was crushing. But I thought, 'Maybe there's a chance; let's keep pressing on.' And right now, I'm feeling giddy."

About InSight

JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

A number of European partners, including France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument to NASA, with the principal investigator at IPGP (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris). Significant contributions for SEIS came from IPGP; the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany; the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland; Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom; and JPL. DLR provided the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain's Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the temperature and wind sensors.