Last month, Mars InSight NASA began digging into the Red Planet. His HP3 (Package of heat flow and physical properties) was designed to bury and measure Mars underground, discovering new geological evidence on the heat flow through Martian soil. Part of this instrument, which really delves into the earth, is known as the mole. He was to penetrate to a depth of 16 feet. But he stopped just a few hours after kicking began. Mole reached the depth of just one foot.
Since then, mission scientists have been working hard to figure out how to do it. According to current Tilman Spohn, HP, their best guess3 the main investigator of the instrument is that the mole has hit a rock or layer of gravel. But he admits that this is partly speculation. It is also possible that the bit will somehow be hooked on its own support structure. The team must examine all options before taking action.
Testing at home and on Mars
To find out, the NASA team turned to a set of diagnostic tools, such as the InSight camera and other sensors. But they are also trying to recreate the problem with engineering models here on Earth. InSight has a twin, currently located in Berlin, and many other copies of its various instruments, including mole. Engineers have been practicing with these maple landers since the failure, trying to recreate the problem they see on Mars, and then worked out a way to re-dig the ground moles. Only then will they try to fix them on a real InSight.
Spohn points out that the whole process is slow and it may take another month before the team is ready to make any attempts to fix it on Mars. Even when they develop a solution, they may require writing new software, testing it on models on Earth, and then sending it to a real InSight before taking any action.
So, for now, the teams at the German Aerospace Center that HP provided3 and in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs the larger InSight mission, work together to find the cause and possible solutions to the InSight digging problem.
There are scenarios that can stop the mission where it stands. "If it's a 1 meter (3 foot) rock block in place," says Spohn, "there's no way we can handle this situation. We hope that what we are fighting for is a small rock, let's say half the length of the pier. We could push it away, continuing the hammer. " Spohn calls it "brutal force".
One of the ways in which scientists wonder how to help a winding hammer would be to press on a mole or its support structure, probably with the InSight arm, to give it more strength and reduce rejection. At the moment, part of the problem may be that the mole bounces off the rock instead of driving, so increasing the pressure can help digging. But pressing down is not what the arm is designed for, so testing models on Earth would be so important before trying on 800 million units on Mars.
If they are banging, bending or breaking a part of the lander, there are no patches on the Red Planet. "If you make a mistake, it will disappear," says Spohn. He points out, however, that if the mole starts digging again, it can reach its target depth in about four hours and there will be plenty of energy left. InSight itself operates on the basis of solar energy and has been designed for two Earth years of service. InSight reached Mars only in November, so it has a lot of time left.
If the worst case occurs and the mole can not continue, Spohn admits: "We would lose a lot of science." The mole must descend at least 10 feet to achieve its goal of measuring the heat flow from inside Mars. "But there are still things to do," he says. Other InSight instruments are operating as planned and will continue to receive information from Mars dirt rates that InSight has managed to dig. "It would still be things that had not been done before," says Spohn. "Not as bold as originally planned, but still good science."