NASA's attempt to burrow into Mars met 2 insurmountable obstacles: cement-like soil and an unexpected energy shortage
An artist's illustration of the InSight lander on Mars, the "mole" of which is buried deep in the ground. NASA / JPL-Caltech
NASA abandoned the “Mars mole” on its InSight lander after trying for two years to penetrate the planet's surface.
The Martian floor turned out to be too thick, and dust accumulated on the lander's solar panels made the robot produce less and less electricity.
No Mars mission will be measuring the temperature of the planet any time soon - a measurement that is vital to understanding the history of the planet and potential groundwater.
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NASA sent its InSight lander to Mars on an ambitious mission: to study the planet's deep internal structure. A crucial part of these efforts - the "mole" - has failed despite two years of attempts to save it.
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The mole is a revolutionary thermal probe designed to dig 16 feet into the Martian soil and measure the temperature of the planet. His measurements would have provided clues as to how the planet was formed and changed over the past 4.6 billion years - a story that would help scientists track down the waters of Mars and possibly life.
But the mole has made little progress in the unexpectedly dense soil. Now the InSight team has to ration the lander's solar energy. NASA announced Thursday that the mole is unable to dig its hole.
The mole emerged halfway out of its hole on October 26, 2019. NASA / JPL-Caltech
"It's a personal tragedy," Sue Smrekar, a senior scientist on the InSight team who worked on the mole for 10 years, told Insider. "Everyone tried so hard to make it work. That's why I can't ask for more."
No other Mars mission in NASA's prediction can take the internal temperature measurements that the mole was designed to do.
"This was our best attempt to get this data," added Smrekar. "From my personal point of view, it's very disappointing and scientifically a very significant loss too. So it really feels like a huge disappointment."
An unexpected energy crisis
An artist's concept shows NASA's InSight lander with its instruments used on the surface of Mars. The seismometer is the round device to the left of the lander.
The InSight team spent two years maneuvering the lander's robotic arm to see if it could go any further with the mole burrow. The probe, a 16-inch long pile driver, was designed to take advantage of the loose debris that other Mars missions have encountered. The soil would flow around the mole's outer hull, creating friction to pound deeper.
But in February 2019 the mole was on a foundation of solid ground called "Duracrust". The next two years were spent troubleshooting, commissioning InSight with new software to teach its robotic arm new maneuvers to assist the mole, and eagerly awaiting photos that might show progress.
"It was a great effort across the board that we never expected," said Smrekar. "We thought we were going to knock the hole down."
The InSight team initially instructed the robotic arm to press on the mole, but this resulted in it jumping out of the hole. After putting the probe back in the ground a year later, they instructed the arm to pile dirt on it in the hopes that the probe would have enough friction to dig deeper.
But the mole made no progress with 500 hammer blows last Saturday. The top was only 2 or 3 inches below the surface.
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