DLR Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP³) on the surface of Mars. (Credit: NASA)
PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — 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 ...