US, WASHINGTON (ORDO NEWS) — The instrument on NASA’s InSight Mars landing ship, which has been struggling for more than a year to break deep into the surface of Mars, is now making slow but steady progress with the robotic arm of the landing craft.
The InSight was designed to deploy a probe or mole on the surface of the planet using an impact mechanism to dig into a depth of five meters below the surface to measure heat flux inside the planet. The probe, however, got stuck shortly after it began to dig in February 2019, reaching a depth of no more than 30 centimeters.
Within the framework of the project, several methods were tested to make it work. Most recently, spacecraft controllers placed a scoop located on the end of a robotic arm of a descent vehicle over a mole, pressing on it to help it move below the surface and prevent it from returning, which has already happened in the past.
This approach still works. “The mole is lowered by its percussion mechanism, and it is assisted by the push of the scoop, which balances the recoil force,” said Tilman Spohn, chief developer of the instrument of the German space agency DLR, on May 4 during a mission webinar.
However, progress is slow due to the need to move the arm to the exact position as the probe goes deeper. “This is a very tedious procedure,” he said. “We can walk just 1.5 centimeters at a time before we have to reconfigure everything.”
Another problem is the angle at which the mole penetrates the surface. The probe was originally designed to descend vertically, but is now at an angle of almost 30 degrees to the vertical. “This is not what we would like to see,” he said. If the mole can completely sink below the surface, we expect him to “correct his slope … to some extent.”
The problems gave scientists some insight into the surface properties of the InSight landing pad. There is a “hard crust” about 20 centimeters thick, which can be described as sand that has been cemented with salt. This crust did not give enough friction to prevent the probe from bouncing.
Another problem, he said, is that there is currently an area of compacted sand created by the mole. It was formed from the numerous attempts of the mole to go deeper while remaining in place. This makes it difficult for the mole to penetrate the surface even with the help of a manipulator.
Spon did not indicate how long the current attempt to deliver the mole beneath the surface of Mars would last. Other project officials suggested that this process could take a couple of months. The last attempt began only when Bruce Banerdt, the chief researcher of the entire mission, briefed at a meeting of the analytic group of the NASA Mars research program on April 17, 2020, noting that the other instruments of the ship, including its seismometer, work well.
“We expect that we will have a mark on the same level with the earth in a month or two,” he said. By that time, the hand will no longer be able to help move the mole further into the ground. “At that moment, he can either walk on his own or not.”
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