back to article Has NASA's Mars Insight lander hit rock bottom? Heat probe struggles to penetrate Red Planet

NASA engineers are trying to fix an instrument on the Mars Insight lander that was supposed to burrow five metres (16 feet) into the Red Planet's surface – and has instead tapped out at just 30 centimetres (one foot.) The device, known as the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), is essentially a very fancy hammer. …

  1. Anonymous Coward

    It obviously hit a cylinder...

    Or maybe a gas line. You really should call ahead before digging.

    1. Captain Scarlet

      Re: It obviously hit a cylinder...

      I didn't think the Mysterons used Gas?

      1. 404

        Re: It obviously hit a cylinder...

        Plasma flow conduit... git yer shit straight...

    2. Astarte

      Re: It obviously hit a cylinder...

      More likely to be a failed shell from the War of the Worlds era.

  2. lglethal Silver badge

    This article is very light on details, so if you actually want to read about the problems, and the great work NASA and DLR scientists are doing to rescue the mission, have a look here:

    Basically, the soil in this location is an extremely fine soft powder, which has formed a hole around the mole. The Mole requires friciton on it's side walls to operate, so sitting in a hole means it cant grib and cant penetrate beyond the 20 or so cm it already has. There are ways to dig into such soil (as similar soils do exist here on earth) and the team will be pushing forward with those.

    There is still a possibility that the mole has encountered a second rock under the surface (it encountered one in the first 10cm but was able to deflect past it), but the more likely problem is this super fine soil. Once through this top layer, the Mole should be able to operate without problems. Of course that's a big "should", as it's impossible to know how deep the fine soil goes, and what lays beneath. Still now that the Mole is free from its support structure, and engineers can see directly what the mole is doing when it tries to penetrate, chances of a successful mission are greatly increased.

    Good work by the whole team, and good luck for getting the mole down deep! (from an ex-HP3 team member)... :)

    1. Inventor of the Marmite Laser
      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Clickable

        And remember to read from the bottom up, if, unlike me, you want to read all the posts in the correct temporal order. :-)

    2. asphytxtc
      Thumb Up

      A quality post with some great details, have an upvote sir!

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        IIRC, and as per his reference to the HP3 team, he helped build the mole. I'd love to know who downvoted you and why.

    3. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Diagnostic hammering

      My favorite phrase of the week, but unlikely to work as an excuse for being in the pub, not work. A fascinating blog though, and I'm happily geeked out after reading it. Also science vs bureaucracy-

      (BTW: It takes 2 entire weeks to clear customs over here for such a shipment. Add to that some time for customs clearing in the US)

      I'm guessing there was a lot of export paperwork to get the Mole to Mars as well. I'm also guessing it's providing a lot of useful data, even if it's not hit the desired depth. I'd been curious about the surface, ie the result of all the large dust storms leading to either fine sands, or scoured rock. Presumably those effects were part of the site selection, but has a lot of implications if we plan to use robo-dozers to start digging for burying manned structures for radiation and storm protection.

      And I've also been having fun playing "Surviving Mars", which makes it all seem easy :)

    4. Marshalltown

      Once it gets past this layer, hmmm? Think about that. Mars theoretically has a a primarily aeolian sedimentary environment for how many millions of years? So, how deep is this soil layer? Thought so. And what are your plans, NASA, now you've thought it through?

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Check the 11th April log/blog entry. For Science!

        But geologists have also seen that the topmost centimeters on Mars is formed by what is called a "duricrust". Here, chemical reactions between grains of sand have made them stick together, providing cohesion in that layer.

        And theories about whether the surface has cohesion, or not. Either way, the Mole is providing data to test those theories. And I still find it awesome that we can see the surface in hi-res colour, and footprints left in the dust/duricrust.. Which I guess can also be used to test assumptions regarding the surface. I guess one plan could have been to include a slim probe to pathfind for the Mole, but that'd add mass/volume to the experiments & AFAIK has been done with previous missions, leading to the initial assumptions about the soil structure.

        (And being a comms wonk, having to wait for the stars (ok, satellites) to be in alignment is an interesting insight into the challenges of remote controlling Marsbots.)

      2. lglethal Silver badge

        For info, the data from other Mars landers and rovers (Curiousity, Spirit, Opportunity, etc) showed the Duricrust to be a relatively thin layer. Thats what the Mole was designed for, based on the best available evidence. It turns out in InSight's location, it seems to be quite a thick layer.

        But remember, even if you have excellent Soil data from lets say Australia, whats the likelihood of the Soil in northern France being similar? Planets are big, and their geology changes significantly. You design for the best info you have, but you're still throwing a dart from a continent away and hoping you get a bullseye (you're also hoping the dartboard is still there and is actually made from the material you thought it was, and which your dart is designed for). Exploration is a gamble, but hopefully this one pays off in the near future! :)

        1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

          It turns out in InSight's location, it seems to be quite a thick layer.

          So.. a literal case of Sod's Law. Sort of. But as an engineer, any problem can be resolved with the application of the right hammer!

          (So while eagerly awaiting the next log update, been pondering terraforming and SF-style approaches like worms to create soil, add bacteria etc etc. Which presumably gets more challenging if there's a thick crust. And like you say, on a planetary scale, would require an extensive worm farming operation to get going.)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Black monolith

    Turns out the owners thought that getting to the Moon was the sort of thing that could be achieved by a pre-computer civilisation, so they put it on Mars instead.

    1. druck Silver badge

      Re: Black monolith

      What makes you think we didn't have computers in 1969?

      1. STOP_FORTH

        Re: Black monolith

        No, no! That's what the monolith owners thought.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Black monolith

          I'm pleased that someone actually reads my posts and parses them correctly, so thank you very much.

          1. STOP_FORTH

            Re: Black monolith

            Earth languages are trivially easy to parse.

            Human beings are trivially easy to please.

            Have an upvote.

  4. Forget It

    > ... launched into space in May 2018, and reached Mars some six months later in November.

    Currently between a rock and a hard place

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    80's flow chart

    Sounds like the Boffins have already done the Collaborate and Listen step.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 80's flow chart

      I know what the obstacle's Ice. Ice, baby

    2. Umbracorn

      Re: 80's flow chart

      Wish they could try the mole in a brand new position.

      Somewhere where the soil can hold the probe tightly

      And the reciprocal hammer can go daily and nightly.

  6. Alister


    engineers have removed a protective sheath surrounding the probe

    Hmm, going bareback now, eh?

    1. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

      Re: Unprotected?

      indeed. No more safe hammering, apparently.

  7. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    I've been following this tale for a while and seem to remember, even before the craft landed, I said "... but if they hit a stone it will stop."

    So it's currently 50/50 - stone or soil too soft ... I'm preparing the 'I told you so' in a loud voice ...

    1. lglethal Silver badge

      Actually Andy it has already hit one stone and gone around it. Stone's arent that big a danger, unless you happen to hit dead on on a flat surface, but even then with enough time it can usually crack its way through most things. You should have seen some of the nice scars we left on solid blocks of concrete we embedded in the soil for testing just that scenario.

      Of course, there is the chance it hit something dead on and super hard. but based on the surface scatter of rocks, the likelihood of hitting two rocks in close proximity and just the right configuration to block the mole is considered low. It's considered to be only a couple of percent likely.

      If you look at the link I posted above, and check out the latest pics, you will see the giant hole around the Mole. That definitely will stop the mole running. Fill that in, and apply pressure on the correct spot to prevent hole reemergence, and we should be back up and running.

      So no, not 50/50 and you can put away your told you so voice.

      1. Marshalltown

        "...the likelihood of hitting two rocks in close proximity and just the right configuration to block the mole is considered low...."

        I have hammer augured probably well over a thousand soil samples, typically 0.5, 1.0 or even occasionally 2.0 meters deep in my career and I would say that I hit rocks that required relocating the augur about 1/3 the time. Occasionally several relocations were required. So, how low was the likelihood estimate? Evem with a large truck-mounted geotechnical riig, I've seen them stopped dead.

        1. DugEBug

          A friend of mine has a beautiful swimming pool with a car-sized boulder in the center. When they were excavating for the pool and they encountered this beast they had to make a decision - dynamite it, fill the hole back in and forget the whole thing, or build the pool around it. They chose the latter, and now have a very unique design with a nice centerpiece from which to dive.

          1. STOP_FORTH


            You know Ray Winstone?

  8. Norman Nescio

    There's a Martian telecomms engineer...

    ...cursing that his fail-safe method of recovering from getting lost has resulted in finding an alien backhoe.

    Obviously, the mole has hit some Martian optical fibre.

  9. Agent Tick


    ... I am amazed they have apparently not equipped kinda sonar to test the ground/location before drilling into rocks?

    The planet is Red maybe coz it's iron in the ground hence hard to digg?


  10. WereWoof

    Hole in the ground

  11. Cyclops

    Nasa. With all their combined experience and intelligence. Why didn't they include a winch into the design I ask?

    1. zuckzuckgo Bronze badge
    2. lglethal Silver badge

      NASA didnt design it DLR did, but anyway the reason can be put simply as Budget, Complexity, Weight and Space Constraints. Adding a winch or some other mechanism for repositioning would have seriously added to all of them.

      Also keep in mind, the mole is designed to go 5 m down and then take measurements for the next 2 years. Assuming it got down, there's no point to pull it back up, so the winch would be dead weight, you've carried for nothing. There was always a risk that it wouldnt get all the way down, but it was a risk worth taking ot keep with in the above requirements.

  12. Maryland, USA

    Seek help from Donald Trump

    Each time you think he can't go lower, he does.

    1. E 2

      Re: Seek help from Donald Trump

      Perhaps we can put him on a rocket to Mars. He can pound on the rod, and since Mars is quite orange-red in color we won't be able to see him.

  13. E 2


    Pitching a tent while camping trip in the mountains, you need to use big nails to peg down the tent's various strings & ropes.

    Inevitably every second nail hits a rock. NASA has never gone camping?

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