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And Now for Some Good News: The Mars InSight Heat Flow Probe Is Digging Again

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A test on Earth showing the arm pressing into the mole
A test on Earth showing the arm pressing into the mole
Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Maybe today you need a little bit of good news. Well, we’ve got some: The Mars InSight heat flow probe seems to be descending into the planet once again.

On Friday, the NASA InSight team tweeted:


InSight landed on Mars back in November 2018 with a series of instruments, including a seismometer, cameras, and the HP3—the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package. The probe is a mole with a self-hammering mechanism that is supposed to allow it to burrow deeper and deeper into the soil, to a target depth of between 10 and 16 feet, where it can measure how heat flows beneath the Martian surface. Scientists hope to use this information to better understand the planet’s composition, and how that composition has evolved over time.

But the probe faced trouble on deployment. Impeded by an unexpectedly crusty soil texture that didn’t generate enough friction for the probe to dig, it only made it down to around a foot and a half. NASA scientists tried another solution—pressing down on the soil near the probe with InSight’s robotic arm, essentially pinning it to the side of the hole, hoping to increase the friction. While that technique seemed to work at first, Mars retaliated by spitting the probe out.


Last month, InSight engineers devised a new technique: They decided to use the shovel end of the lander’s arm to press onto the top of the mole, called its back cap. They’d previously avoided this maneuver, given how fragile the temperature sensor-filled tether linking the probe to the lander is, according to a NASA release. 

Now, in a gif posted on the InSight Twitter, it appears that the mole has descended ever-so-slightly deeper—a sign that the added push from the robotic arm could be working.

A few inches isn’t the 10-16 feet that scientists were hoping for, but it’s a start. Meanwhile, InSight has plenty of other instruments that have provided a host of exciting new results. Last month, we reported that InSight had measured the entire planet reverberating with marsquakes, ones that might one day allow scientists to determine the planet’s interior structure. The planet also has a stronger magnetic field in its crust than expected, and a turbulent atmosphere.

Hopefully, the heat probe will soon provide data to add to this exciting list of results.