NASA’s InSight lander mission has hit a snag as a probe designed to measure the heat of Mars has gotten stuck in the surface of the planet. The probe began its efforts to dig into the surface late last week, but only made it around a foot down before stopping. Now, NASA scientists are evaluating their options.
The Insight lander has been taking photographs and exploring Mars since Nov. 26, 2018. It successfully set its heat probe, called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe or HP3 for short, onto the planet’s surface on Feb. 12. The plan was for the probe to dig to a depth of about 16 feet to take measurements from deep within the Martian soil.
During the first five minutes of the task, the probe proceeded rapidly but slowed dramatically after that. Over the next four hours, the probe made little downward progress, leading the scientists to speculate that it had hit an obstacle that was impeding its progress. The device became pitched to one side, leaning about 15 degrees off vertical, prompting the researchers to halt the experiment.
The scientists now say that they will pause for the next two weeks to find a solution to the problem. They are waiting to receive data and images from the lander that will help them assess the situation. Whatever plan they come up with will be tested first here on Earth using models and spare instruments.
One of the solutions might be to use the robotic arm of the lander to pull the probe out of the surface. Then, the researchers may be able to try again using a different position that may yield a better result. Another option is to simply restart the probe and hope that it will be able to make it through the obstacle. Tests performed before the launch showed that it takes the probe a while to make it through denser materials, so it may just need time to be able to reach its goal.