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Here's How NASA Can Save InSight Extremely Trapped Heat



A NASA InSight hand will use its scoop to press a heat probe against the wall of its opening.
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Back in February, NASA's InSight landing probe didn't go very far, trying to tunnel a Mars pit. It has been stuck since then, but NASA has developed a plan with the hope of returning the probe again.

The NASA InSight land vehicle arrived at Elysium Planitia, a plain near the Martian Equator, in November 201

8. On February 28, 2019, the landing gear began an important phase of the mission: the deployment of its heat probe, heat flow package component, and physical properties (HP3). Designed by the German Aerospace Center, the probe, or "mole", is designed to measure the amount of heat exiting from the surface of Marcia, and it should have reached a depth of up to 5 meters (16 feet).

Unfortunately, the heat probe only managed to descend 35 centimeters (14 inches) before it stopped. So little progress has been made that the top of the birthmark is still sticking out of the hole.

In a few months, NASA was unable to remedy the situation, and it was quite a disappointment. At the time, the InSight team found out that the heat probe had hit a shallow rock, preventing it from progressing. Unfortunately, the team can't just pull out the device and start again elsewhere; the probe is an unambiguous agreement since it cannot move in the opposite direction.

Data collected over the summer suggest that the heat probe may not have fallen into the rock at all, but rather a very dense patch of material. It now hopes that a solution may be found to return the probe, according to a NASA release Thursday.

The new plan will use a scoop on the end of the InSight robotic arm to help clog the heat probe. In the proposed hammering tactic, InSight's hand will slide the scoop into the probe to push the edge of the hole. As InSight engineer Ashitey Trebbi-Ollennu put it in a NASA video, "We believe that we will limit the movement of the mole downward so that we can make progress."

This plan has already been put in place. According to NASA, InSight shifted its hand over the weekend. The first sign that a similar plan could work came in June, when team members used their hand to remove a structure designed to hold a mole while it worked.

Having removed the obstacle, the team was able to look into the hole. It is now possible that the probe encountered an impenetrable rock, but new visual evidence suggested another possible culprit: a 5 – 10-cm (2 – 4-inch) layer of hardness that NASA called "peculiar" cemented soil, thicker than any "Which is found in other missions on Mars and is different from the soil for which the mole was developed."

This is potentially good news since promotion through this dense layer is still possible. Just a thermal probe needs a little help. It requires friction to dig the probe. The absence of dirt prevents the self-destructive action of pulling the probe further down. Lacking the environment to work, the probe just bounces in place like a useless stick. Whether this bouncing is happening now is not clear.

"Because we can't bring the soil to the mole, maybe we can bring the mole to the ground by hammering it into the hole," Tillman Spoon, director of HP3 investigator at DLR, said in a NASA press release.

This is not the first time that NASA has tried to use InSight's hand to remedy the situation. Last summer, a scoop was used to disturb the area around the hole in the hope of causing a collapse, thereby providing the environment for the probe to work. It didn't work because the arm just couldn't put the pressure it needed.

If fixing tactics do not work, other options are possible. NASA is also working on a potential strategy to see the scoop function as originally intended: to work as an excavator for scraping and drawing dirt into the current pit.

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Trebby-Allenne stated that he was "cautiously optimistic" that the team would re-launch the mole. Now we will have to wait and see if the docking tactics work, but one thing is for sure: NASA does not seem easy.


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