back to article NASA pulls the plug on InSight's mole after Martian surface bests boffins

Hot on the heels of a mission extension comes news that scientists have now given up on attempts to persuade the NASA InSight lander's "mole" to burrow more than a few centimetres beneath the Martian surface. Despite repeated attempts since February 2019, the mole has failed to achieve the depth necessary to conduct the …

  1. don't you hate it when you lose your account Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    You win some

    You lose some. And NASA is well ahead as far as I'm concerned.

    1. HildyJ Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: You win some

      Absolutely. If you try something new, your chance of success is less than one hundred percent but if you don't try they drop to zero.

      Plus, other aspects of the mission were successful.

      And lastly, NASA will learn from this and consider relocatable drills and/or a different type of drill in future missions.

      Here's to the boffins who tried and tried again.

  2. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. lglethal Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Huge failure - No actually it wasnt

      Actually The HP³ Mole was only one of the secondary instruments on the InSight mission, not the Primary. The primary instrument was the Seismometers which have been working perfectly. There are a number of other instruments including the weather package which has been giving hourly weather reports for Mars since it's arrival. All the other instruments were complete successes.

      The Mole was designed to hammer 3-5m into the soil (a slight correction is needed in the article about that). You cant drill 3m. Not without serious weight and space problems. The Mole, plus all its packaging (flight housing, cables, electronics, etc.) came in at under 3kg. If you want retractable you need to add a lot of weight, and if you add a lot of weight, you add a lot of cost or you remove other instruments and lose science.

      We designed the Mole based on the best knowledge available, i.e. the info from all of the previous landers and rovers. None of them had experienced a soil variation like we did. The best analogy I can give you is that someone gives you a satellite image of a house (resolution a few metres per pixel). You now need to drill a hole in a wall in that house. Choose your tool bit, and feeds and speeds now. And no you cant change them once you get there. So you kow a lot of houses have masonry walls, so perhaps you choose a masonry bit. But whose to say this isnt a house made out of steel? Then you're screwed. Or it's an igloo? Maybe it's a glass wall? That's what the HP³ team were working with, satellite images of the landing area. Info from the other rovers and landers. And as much testing with different soils and make ups as we could do here on earth. But sometimes it just doesnt work out.

      Sad day for all the InSight team, but still that's Science, sometimes it doesnt work out. And even a negative result brings experience (other instruments have been able to use the Moles hammering to make other scientific measurements, so it's not a complete loss). Beer for all involved!

      --- from an ex-HP³ team member

      1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Huge failure - No actually it wasnt

        This is part of why I keep coming back to El Reg: to watch hapless, clueless commentards get an authoritative beatdown.

      2. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

        Re: Huge failure - No actually it wasnt

        > You cant drill 3m

        Don't. Next you'll be telling me that Bruce Willis film wasn't real.

        (Thanks for the insight, always great to hear from an insider)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Huge failure - No actually it wasnt

          Bruce and company would be the weight and space penalty he referred to ;-)

      3. CuChulainn

        But whose to say this isnt a house made out of steel?

        Precisely.

        Although this is an gross over-simplification from someone not involved in any way with the project (it appears that you are), the mole expected soil and found bedrock.

        To get it there, try it, and try it again and again in different ways, is a massive achievement.

        And thanks for the view from the inside.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: But whose to say this isnt a house made out of steel?

          As I understand it. not bedrock but unusually compacted sand.

          1. CuChulainn

            Re: But whose to say this isnt a house made out of steel?

            That's why I said in advance it was a gross over-simplification ;-)

            Hard stuff instead of soft stuff.

          2. boltar Silver badge

            Re: But whose to say this isnt a house made out of steel?

            "As I understand it. not bedrock but unusually compacted sand"

            I think thats generally called Sandstone.

            1. KarMann Bronze badge
              Headmaster

              Re: But whose to say this isnt a house made out of steel?

              Or caliche, to those with experience of the stuff from the likes of Arizona, which is probably a good few of the team members, given UA's & ASU's involvement in many of these programmes.

      4. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: Huge failure - No actually it wasnt

        The Mole, plus all its packaging (flight housing, cables, electronics, etc.) came in at under 3kg

        I still think it was neat. I also wonder what was learned about the soil structure, and how common that might be.. Especially if we follow SF standards for Mars colonisation and want to become mole people to reduce radiation exposure.

      5. TheBadja

        Re: Huge failure - No actually it wasnt

        If you know what you are doing, it isn't science. NASA rolls the dice and does better than they should, given the unknowns.

      6. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Huge failure - No actually it wasnt

        Its not a sad day for your team. How were you to know the steel accommodation sphere was so close beneath the surface.

        1. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

          Re: Huge failure - No actually it wasnt

          I do like the idea of the hammer going "rat ta tat tat" on the ground, and the seismic sensor picking up a "rat tat" sent back in reply. I saw Mars Attacks, it's clear the wee green monkeys have a sense of humour.

      7. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Huge failure - No actually it wasnt

        As an ex-JPLer, I feel your pain. Even here on Earth, if you are doing innovative work you have to work with imperfect information and take risks. Sometimes you can do everything right based on the best information available and have things still not work out. All spacecraft are risky. It's the nature of the business at this point in human history.

    2. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge
      Windows

      Re: Huge failure

      Insight is a huge failure since drilling down and measuring seismic activity was the whole point of this mission.

      And how much actual science have you done? Very seldom is there an absolute or total failure. Often things are learned, even if that is "this doesn't work in this situation". That's not a massive failure, that a learned experience and will go a long way to shaping future programs over what works or doesn't.

      Compared to more than half of Mars missions, it's done far better since its not missed/become a smoking crater on a foreign planet

      /become a smoking crater on Earth...

      With regards to failing to anticipate that the experimental mole might fail, how much experience do you have with different worlds geology? How much extra weight do you think they have to add multiple redundancies for once specific experiment?

    3. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

      Re: Huge failure

      Try hammering in a few 3 or 4 meter grounding rods here on Earth and tell us what your success rate was.

      1. CuChulainn

        Re: Huge failure

        THAT brings back memories of my first forays into building radios when I was a teenager.

        I was always frustrated at not being able to make ones in the early days that didn't depend on a proper earth, but while I was in that phase I 'installed' my own grounding rod in the garden (aka big metal pole).

        I got it down a foot or so with a big hammer. When that stopped working I switched to a lump hammer. And I finally ended up using a sledge hammer. I reckon I made it to about 1.5 metres before it hit something hard enough that any further sledge-hammering just mangled the metal pole. My hands had blisters and I was knackered!

        It did work as an earth for the radios though.

        And getting it out again years later was fun. I guess it would have been even more fun trying to get it in then out again remotely on Mars. These guys did it better than me, even if they did find something harder than expected*.

        (*That reads like a script from a Carry On movie near the end. Unintentional!)

      2. StrangerHereMyself

        Re: Huge failure

        Exactly my point! If it doesn't work here on Earth, why assume it would work on Mars?

        1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Re: Huge failure

          They thought they'd be burrowing into a nice sandy beach.

          In reality it was more like a sandy bunker on a crazy-golf course. The surface was sandy, but underneath most certainly wasn't.

          Lessons learned, time to move on.

        2. tfb Silver badge
          Mushroom

          Re: Huge failure

          Have you ever watched piles being driven into the ground? I suppose you haven't, because if you had you'd know that in fact it does work on Earth. If you were thinking, at all, you'd also have realised that they didn't just build the thing,

          put it on the spacecraft and send it to Mars: they build a bunch of test & development versions first and tried them on Earth, where they, you know, worked.

          But well, it's easier to snipe at them, isn't it? I bet it makes you feel ever so clever.

  3. RM Myers Silver badge
    Go

    Sorry to here this,

    but sometimes you just can't get a bigger hammer, particularly when the nearest "bigger hammer" is 155 million kilometers away. At least they learned something very surprising and interesting about the Martian soil, and otherwise the mission seems successful.

    1. RM Myers Silver badge
      FAIL

      Re: Sorry to here this,

      For fscks sake, my proofreading skills are hear, their, and no wear.

  4. Sleep deprived
    Alien

    No wonder it's hard

    You landed in a ghost town and hit a leftover concrete slab.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: No wonder it's hard

      I saw it more like the people trying to dig the St. Lawrence Seaway between the US and Canada. At several spots along the way the diggers came upon some unexpectedly hard ground: either glacial till or high-silica sandstone, both of which were harder than concrete. Sounds to me like InSight's mole got struck by Murphy and hit the Martian equivalent of permafrost. Ask any Klondike miner how that stuff can ruin your day.

  5. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Who else would say .."The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one"?*

    Meanwhile, on Earth, an alien fleet of tiny vessels executing myriad mutant viral commands in the destructive indigenous native humanoid species, gains remote access traffic control leverage to live future direction of progress, and programs and projects creating out of the rarified airs and atmospheres of imaginination, the seeds and feeds that plant and flower into a novel existence with any number of enlightening existential rushes to explore and exploit and enjoy.

    :-) Well, aliens would say that, wouldn't they ‽ . What's the human explanation of the deadly invasion curtailing normal inequitable divisive activity? A simple rogue renegade bug from a fish market in a foreign land to many, escaped and free to roam wherever it pleases and grabbing an entire planet's undivided attention as it navigates and encircles the globe .... and to be defeated by a tiny prick or two of a free at the point of delivery, extremely rapidly manufactured synthesised designer drug ..... so that everything can go back to the way things were before with madness and mayhem providing conflict and catastrophe and CHAOS?

    Yeah, right on, brother. Nice one. Pull the other one, it has bells on it. Psst .... Do you want a bridge for sale?

    * Other than Richard Burton who is recorded saying it ...... The Eve of War

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      OK ..... Let's Get Down and Dirty with Base Fundamentals for Help Definitely Needed

      How many other folk ... :-) apart from the likes of an Elon Musk type ...... realise that all of this endeavour and talk about alien space exploration and far off future planetary colonisation, is simply analogous to the difficulties that society and exclusive elite executive leader administrations have at home in rebooting human civilisations to a greater existence on Earth ...... a bounteous green planet on which they can easily survive but fail miserably to enjoy and agree with each other to share and deliver prosperity in ...... resulting in not so much a planet of apes, more a collective of oxymorons ‽

      Would you like to deny it and in so doing positively prove the points currently valid?

      1. very angry man

        Re: OK ..... Let's Get Down and Dirty with Base Fundamentals for Help Definitely Needed

        Can i get this translated into language that is more understandable? please!

        1. Def Silver badge

          Re: OK ..... Let's Get Down and Dirty with Base Fundamentals for Help Definitely Needed

          Are you sure you really want that?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Pile driver?

    I wonder if a pile-driver approach would work? Use the available power to lift a weight, and have gravity do the actual "drilling" when it's dropped?

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: Pile driver?

      I wonder if a pile-driver approach would work? Use the available power to lift a weight, and have gravity do the actual "drilling" when it's dropped?

      As one of the folks who worked on this pointed out, everything for this part of the mission had to fit into a 3kg budget. Which I guess makes for interesting efficiency & optimisation challenges. And presumably volume budgest as well, so having to figure out how to pack/unpack your experiment before it can get to work.

      But things may change. SLS has a test fire tonight, so the race is on betwen that and Starship. Hopefully both could allow the ISS to be expanded and become a waystation to the Moon or Mars. Which again I guess makes for interesting budget calculations, ie supporting current ISS crew is one thing, supporting an expanded crew of orbiting assembly engineers is another.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Pile driver?

        "As one of the folks who worked on this pointed out, everything for this part of the mission had to fit into a 3kg budget."

        There's also the issue that the g of Mars is only 3.75 m/s^2 (versus 9.8 m/s^2 on Earth). Gravity pile drivers will not be nearly as effective there.

        PS. As for orbital assembly, where are you going to get the raw materials from which to perform your assembly, and how will you get them up there? We still don't know of any material capable of acting as a practical space elevator.

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          Re: Pile driver?

          There's also the issue that the g of Mars is only 3.75 m/s^2 (versus 9.8 m/s^2 on Earth). Gravity pile drivers will not be nearly as effective there.

          S'fine, just use a bigger hammer. Standard engineering approach to almost any problem. On which point, the oil & gas industry use compact, pre-formed shaped charges for piercing pipes and fraccing rock.. Which I guess would be like swing a hammer, only faster. But would presumably also require more care to avoid premature detonation and early termination of the penetration mission.

          PS. As for orbital assembly, where are you going to get the raw materials from which to perform your assembly, and how will you get them up there? We still don't know of any material capable of acting as a practical space elevator.

          I'm thinking more of assembling modular Mars or Moon missions in orbit. SLS & Starship promise to be able to lift 2-3 Caterpillar D9 bulldozers to orbit. Would need some modifications to operate on the Moon, or Mars, and Theodore Sturgeon previously warned of additional potential hazards, like attempting to move FLMs*. But more practically, segments or components of a Mars explorer could presumably be delivered near to the ISS, then assembled there. But would be challenging given the ISS crew complement.

          So expand the ISS so it can do ship building, or start launching components for a shipyard at one of the Lagrange points. Then for raw materials, there's a lot of those already up there. It's just a question of getting to them and utilising them. Like my favorite ship or base building material, lunarcrete. Either way, for any decent manned Mars expedition, we're gonna need a bigger spaceship.

          *FLM=Funny Looking Meteorite.

          1. Charles 9 Silver badge

            Re: Pile driver?

            "S'fine, just use a bigger hammer."

            The mission had a 3kg payload limit. That won't let you do much on Earth, let alone Mars. That also limits the potential for using explosive demolition (well, that and the lack of oxygen...).

            The long-term stumbling block for any long-term space mission is the limitation on payloads. Getting stuff into orbit is the hard part, it seems, from a cost perspective.

    2. KarMann Bronze badge
      Boffin

      Re: Pile driver?

      The other respondents are missing a salient point: That's pretty much exactly what it did. The weight was contained within the mole itself, and driven by a rotating cam (see animation), but in principle, it's very much a pile driver, indeed.

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Pile driver?

      pile driver is interesting. Such a device would ALSO be good for MINING operations...

      * use a liquid explosive that requires detonation (but is otherwise stable), similar to those diesel pile drivers [but of course little to no air] with hydrazine or something like it

      * the piston could be made of a lightweight material, then bucket-filled by a scoop and arm until it's "heavy enough" - once in place, that is.

      * carefully designed pulley and cable to lift the piston (and drop it) so that the cable doesn't easily get all twisted when the operations instructions are sent with hours' delay.

      * autonomous droid for the most part. I think we have the tech for this kind of thing already...

      Field test THAT one, yeah!

      oh and if hydrazine (or a similar chemical) can be made to work like diesel fuel on Mars or in space, so much the better! Imagine, piston engine space rovers. Who'd a thunk it? [a swashplate design might work best]. Add peroxide to the hydrazine for an even better burn!

  7. Abbas

    Next time...

    Next time, to err on the side of safety, pask a few hundred grams of Semtex.

    1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

      Re: Next time...

      Mars Insight can't move away from the Semtex.

      Although I suppose the Semtex would help the lander to move away, in several directions at once.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Did they check for a magnetic anomaly there before they started drilling? Could they try a few metres over (and remember to turn the volume on their radios down before sunrise)?

  9. Muscleguy Silver badge

    My backyard is entirely paved in concrete pavers. Not long after we moved in I lifted one to see if perhaps it was laid on blocks but undereneath is a thick, hard concrete pad. How hard, well my vanadium mix cold chisel hit hard barely scratched the surface.

    To return to nature would require a jackhammer to remove the pad then something to remove the hardcore under it then bring in a load of soil to fill the hole.

    I relaid the paver. That must have been close to 20 years ago now.

    1. Def Silver badge
      Coat

      And yet you go by the moniker muscleguy?

      1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

        Going from prior posts, @muscleguy sounds like he is more of a scientist/boffin lab coat wearing type with an interest in muscles from the physiological point rather than a loin-cloth wearing Schwarzenegger type

    2. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Alert

      Concreted then paved over? Ever wonder if one of the former owners of the property wanted to keep something from being found anytime soon?

  10. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    One stone ... just one stone

    As I said when the bloody thing was announced, soft, loose, fine grained sand is ok. But if you hit one stone/pebble/piece of alien space debris only a couple of square centimeters in area the impactor will stop dead unless you can back up and steer around.

    As has already been said, try bashing a smooth, straight earth spike into the ground with a sledgehammer and see how hard it is ... and that's only a square centimetre or so of cross sectional area with 5Kgs of hammer head and an almighty swing (or a hundred) behind it ...

    To my mind the project was designed in a lab by a scientist making gross assumptions about ground conditions and didn't bother to consult someone in the field who knocks posts in for a living.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021