NASA has sent its Insight lander to Mars with an ambitious mission: to study the deep internal structure of the planet. The “mole”, a crucial component of that effort, failed despite two years of trying to save it.
The mole is a revolutionary thermal explorer designed to reach the temperature of the planet 16 feet above Mars. Its measurements will reveal clues as to how the Earth came into being and changed over the past 4.6 billion years – a history that has helped scientists to discover Martian water and perhaps life.
But the mole has made little progress in the unexpectedly thick soil. Now the Insight team must ration Lander’s solar energy. NASA announced on Thursday that the mole could not dig its hole.
“It’s a bit of a personal tragedy,” Sue Smurker, chief scientist at the Insight team, who has worked on the mole for 10 years, told Insider. “Everyone tried their best to make it a success. So I can not ask for anything more.”
No other Mars mission expected by NASA can measure the internal temperature created by the mole.
“This is our best attempt to obtain this data,” Smurker added. “From my personal point of view, it’s extremely disappointing. Scientifically, it’s also a significant loss. So it feels like a huge setback.”
An unexpected energy crisis
The Insight team spent two years trying to help the mole further using Lander’s robotic arm. The probe, a 16-inch-long pile drive, is designed to absorb the loose dirt encountered by other Mars missions. The soil flows around the outer ring of the mole and provides a diction to keep the hammer deep.
But in February 2019, the mole jumped on a solid soil foundation called “Duracrust”. Looking forward to troubleshooting over the next two years, deploying new software to Insight, teaching new maneuvers in its robotic arm to assist the mole, and photos showing progress.
“It took a lot of effort across the board, something we never expected,” Smurker said. “We thought we were going to hit the bottom of the hole.”
The Insight team initially instructed the robot to push a hand into the mole, but it caused it to come out of the hole. When they returned to the ground, a year later, they instructed the hand to pile the rubbish on them, in the hope that it would give them enough vision to dig deeper.
But the mole made no progress with 500 hammer blows last Saturday. Its top was 2 or 3 inches below the surface.
By then, Insight’s problems were getting worse. Unlike the other sites sent by NASA Rover and Lander, the open plain where Insight sits did not have strong winds. Smerker calls such gases “cleaning events” because they throw away any robots in the red dust scattered around the globe. Without them, Insight’s solar panels would have accumulated a significant layer of dust.
At the same time, the asons were changing and Insight’s house on a flat plain near the equator of Mars was getting colder. Solar panels need to absorb sunlight, but Insight needs more energy to stay active in sunlight.
“The power is running low and so we’ve probably coming in for two or three months, we’ll probably have to avoid operating the equipment and go to the mode where it’s going to survive in some way.
With this new deadline, trying to hammer on Saturday is the last chance for the mole to borough.
Over the next two years, Insight will still be listening to Mars’ earthquakes and collecting data on the planet’s rumble with its seismic dimensions. This will give you some insight into the interior of the planet. Earthquakes on Mars have already revealed that the surface science of Mars is drier and more broken than scientists thought – more like the Moon than Earth.
The internal temperature of a planet reveals its history
If the mole had struck 16 feet below, it would have measured the temperature below its hole. It allows scientists to calculate the amount of heat emitted by Mars – a metric “heat flux”.
“It’s a single number, heat flux, but it has its potential for all aspects of understanding Mars,” Smerker said.
The heat emitted from a planet is partly the heat left over from its formation, but it also comes from radioactive elements that decompose. By measuring heat flux, scientists tell Mars how much radioactive material is on the surface of the Earth – the outer layer of the Earth.
It reveals not only how matter was distributed during the formation of the planet (and whether it is made of things similar to Earth), but also how the internal structure of the planet has changed over time.
“It goes back to understanding the early evolution of Mars. During that time there was a large amount of liquid water on the surface,” Smerker said.
The higher the concentration of radioactive material in the coating, the more active that layer will be. The more radioactive material on the surface, the warmer the upper layers of the planet.
Heat flow can indicate that you need to go deep into Mars to reach liquid water today. Earth’s groundwater can still sustain microbial life. People traveling to future Mars will need to harvest its water.
It is no longer possible to measure the planet’s heat flux in the future.
“I was hoping to be able to get the data and understand what it means for Mars,” Smerker said.
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