Digging into the surface of another planet for the first time is going to bring some surprises, you'd just hope that those surprises don't include your digging being brought to a halt before things have even begun. This is the problem scientists working on the Mars InSight mission have been forced to contend with, though they are now moving ahead with new plans to shed light on the blockage.

The digging operations of the Mars InSight lander are hoped to greatly improve our understanding of the Red Planet. By burrowing into the planet's surface further than any scientific instrument before it, its drilling device will measure thermal conductivity and subsurface materials in the soil, adding to our understanding of how rocky planets like Mars were formed.

But soon after commencing its digging operations in late February, the lander's drilling device, known as "the mole" ground to a halt during the hammering phase, only making it around three quarters of the way out of its housing structure before stopping altogether. The team resumed hammering two days later, but without success.

The data indicated that the mole was healthy and functioning properly, though it was resting at a 15-degree tilt. The operation was then paused while the team investigated the issue, suspecting that some hard rock or gravel beneath the surface is what stopped the device in its tracks.

The mole forms part of a larger instrument called the Heat and Physical Properties Package (HP3), which was built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Engineers there and at NASA will work with replicas of the HP3 in the lab to better understand the problem, and are planning a short hammering test on Mars to try and uncover new clues.

This test will take place over 10 to 15 minutes later in the month, and InSight's seismometer will be used to "listen" in on the hammering to try and help determine the source of the blockage. A camera mounted on the lander's robotic arm, meanwhile, will snap images of the support structure to capture any motion that might be triggered throughout.

"With a special filter applied to the short period data directly onboard the SEIS instrument, we will get a much better time resolution of the signals and should be able to diagnose whether or not the mole is stuck or even slowly moving forward or is rebounding," writes DLR's Tilman Spohn, instrument lead. "Knowing this will help us greatly in designing our
strategy."

Source: NASA, DLR

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