NASA Halts InSight Drilling Instrument on Mars After Hitting Obstacle
Things have been going swimmingly for NASA’s InSight lander on the surface of Mars. After a textbook landing, InSight found itself in a nice, flat area perfect for deploying its seismic sensors. The weather monitoring package even allowed NASA to set up the first interplanetary weather report. It wouldn’t be a robotic mission on another planet without at least a few problems. NASA says the probe’s temperature probe is stuck just below the Martian surface.
InSight has three main instruments for studying Mars. There’s the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), which was successfully deployed early this year. There’s also the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment (RISE), which uses the lander’s x band radio to take precise rotational readings of Mars. The third instrument is the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), and this is the one that’s encountered a problem.
NASA often calls the HP3 a “self-hammering nail” or a “mole.” The probe is supposed to dig down into the planet to a depth of five meters (16 feet), dragging a tether along with it containing a string of temperature sensors. NASA started driving the HP3 into mars on Feb. 28, but the probe only got about three-quarters of the way out of its housing before it stopped. NASA restarted the hammering on March 2, but there has been no significant progress.
The team hoped that the soil immediately under the surface would be relatively free of rocks and gravel. Even if there were some obstructions, the HP3 was designed to curve around the occasional rock. However, it can’t do that when it’s still partially inside the lander housing. The team has decided to pause the HP3 mission to take a detailed look at the problem.
For now, the temperature probe is working correctly. By heating to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius), it measures how quickly heat dissipates in the Martian soil. That thermal conductivity value is necessary to calibrate the sensors the mole drags behind it. NASA doesn’t want to risk damaging the mole by moving too hastily.
NASA should have a better idea of how to proceed with HP3 in about two weeks. Until then, the mole will continue measuring thermal conductivity on the surface.