back to article Dammit Insight! You just had two big jobs to do on Mars and you're failing at one of those

The heat probe aboard NASA’s InSight lander is having trouble digging into the surface of Mars due to “unusual soil conditions,” the space agency announced on Sunday. Designed to burrow up to five meters below Martian ground, the device, affectionately named “the mole”, has only managed to descend 35 centimeters since it began …

  1. Oliver Mayes

    Are we sure that Bugs Bunny isn't underneath knocking it back out every time?

    1. A K Stiles


      I could believe that Marvin was using some kind of special disruptor-beam to confuse and confound them!

      1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

        Re: Marvin

        I await the Earth shattering Kaboom!

    2. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

      Or of course, it's Marvin the Martian, who by now might be saying: "This makes me very angry, very angry indeed."

      Wrong kind of alien in icon, I admit

      @A K Styles: You beat me to it!

      1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

        Bloody robots, Bugs Bunny and now Marvin destroying my front garden!

        Get off my land!

      2. Michael Maxwell

        Isn't that "Vewy angwy, vewy angwy indeed"?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      With the Acme Patent Mole Repellent?

    4. LeahroyNake

      Or the Martian moles are pushing back!

  2. Blockchain commentard

    Hate to point out that Whack-a-Martian-mole is frowned upon.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They should have brought in this one instead..

  4. sbt

    "Unusual" soil conditions

    How TF they know what the usual soil conditions are if this is the first hole?

    They should have put an auger bit on it.

    1. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: "Unusual" soil conditions

      Based on the soil seen around the other landers and rovers, the soil has an extremely deep layer of Duricrust (low friction, high cohesion soil). In the other places where the rovers moved around and sampled soil, the duricrust was seen to be no more than about 2-5cm deep. Here we're looking at over 20cm. So unusual for Mars? Who knows. But unusual based on the evidence of previous missions. Definitely.

      And the Mole is self propelling - it's basically a jackhammer, so No you cant put an auger bit on it.

      Oh well if the team can get it down to about 40cm, then it should be able to go forward with out any further problem (once fully past the duricrust and regular soil conditions return). But yeah this is a set back. But thats Science, doing something in the unknown, under conditions no one's ever done them before, and then overcoming the problems that develop.

      Good luck little Mole...

      (from an ex-HP³ Team member)

      1. Muscleguy Silver badge

        Re: "Unusual" soil conditions

        “But thats Science, doing something in the unknown, under conditions no one's ever done them before, and then overcoming the problems that develop.”

        Well said, been there, done that, got the paper published to prove it. It can be quite a thrilling thing to see or realise something nobody has ever seen or realised before. But that is scientific discovery for you. I’ve chalked up a few in my time. I’m a Developmental Biologist though so my research subjects were much closer to home. But much still remains unknown down in this gravity well.

      2. sbt
        Thumb Up

        It's basically a jackhammer

        Thanks for this insight. I guess I was being somewhat flippant all around; an auger style tool would obviously be a significantly different design and would need something to work against (but then, the current mole seems to, too).

        It's pretty ambitious to aim for 5m into soil of such unknown composition. Heck, we have enough trouble getting a clear run digging holes for planting trees around here.

        Anyway, I wish it well!

        1. lglethal Silver badge

          Re: It's basically a jackhammer

          No problem, just thought I'd clear up details. :)

          We did actually see something similar to this happen during initial Earth testing under extremely low pressure conditions. Turns out taking the very small amount of air cushioning out of the interior of the Mole in low pressure conditions caused the internal spring mechanism to give a much larger reverse force then anyone expected (I mean we're not talking a huge volume of air inside the Mole even on Earth, but that was enough to provide some damping). We made changes to the Mole to correct this and it worked fine in later low pressure testing.

          What we naturally couldnt test and which may be having an effect in concert with the dastardly soil conditions, is the low gravity combined with the low pressure.

          Anyway, what has been seen is that with grip on the side of the Mole (from the arm on the lander pushing the Mole against the side of the hole), the Mole works perfectly. Going down until it disappeared almost completely into the soil. The arm was then moved away (out of fear that it might damage the tether), and pressed on the top of the soil surface near the hole to try and provide some force in that way, but that that wasnt enough to stop the Mole hitting reverse. There's going to be a lot of head scratching going on now to try and work out how to stop that happening again... :)

          1. TJ1

            When the Martians won't give you the finger...

            ... and that's all it needs on top of the HP³ to give gravity a boost.

      3. LeahroyNake

        Re: "Unusual" soil conditions

        You could put an auger on it with sloped interface and a ratchet so that it turned it slightly with each whack and didn't unscrew itself. Saves putting a drive motor on it and it just being a drill, best of both worlds?

        Oh and some mole repellant just in case.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: "Unusual" soil conditions

          Mole repellent? Don't talk to me about mole repellents! I tried everything. The only answer is a 12-bore with a torch strapped to it and a swivel chair!

          Signed, J Carrot.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Unusual" soil conditions

      Maybe it's hit some sort of monolith buried just below the topsoil

  5. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: SIG.

      Weren't the Mysterons from Venus?

      Where awkward soil and low gravity would be the last of the probe's problems. Compared to 500°C surface temperatures, concentrated sulphuric acid rain, lightining and 90 bar pressure. Do NASA build acid-proof submarines with digging arms?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: SIG.

        "Compared to 500°C surface temperatures"

        Sooo... Shorts weather?

      2. TeeCee Gold badge

        Re: SIG.

        Maybe so. However it was our "unprovoked attack" on their Mars base that they had the hump about, or so they said anyway.

  6. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

    Drilled two centimetres of ground over the past week

    Sounds very much like some contractors I've hired in the past

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Drilled two centimetres of ground over the past week

      It sounds very much like drilling through the plaster in our house. My dad built the house and on my grandmother's side we're descended from many generations of plasterers. When I finally get through to good quality 1950/60's brick it's softer.

      1. Jim Mitchell

        Re: Drilled two centimetres of ground over the past week

        Said the guy who apparently just doesn't have a big enough hammer.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Drilled two centimetres of ground over the past week

          Jim Mitchell,

          You can never have a big enough hammer!

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Drilled two centimetres of ground over the past week

            Surely you can have a hammer that is big enough, but you can never have a hammer that is too big?

      2. MiguelC Silver badge

        Re: Drilled two centimetres of ground over the past week

        Maybe it was someone in your grandmother's family who did my walls and used cementitious adhesive instead of plaster when finishing them. Now I need a jack-hammer if I want to put a light fitting or something :)

  7. Spherical Cow Silver badge


    Now that it's popped out, can they move it somewhere else several metres away and hope for an easier way down?

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Re: Relocate?

      When it pops out I generally just relocate it several centimetres away. (If I can get permission, of course. Sadly, it's not always forthcoming.) It's not an easier way down but I don't complain.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Relocate?

        When mine pops out, it's my wife who complains. She doesn't (usually) make me relocate though.

    2. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: Relocate?

      Unfortunately not. It was never designed to be relocated, and the arm on the lander only has a scoop on the end, so no way to grip it. The arm does have a special magnetic coupling on it (which it used to put the Seismometer and the mole on the martian surface), but the coupling for this on the Mole was on its support structure, not on the Mole itself, so unfortunately that cant be used either.

      We'll just have to see if they can get it back down in this location.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Relocate?

        Don't NASA have AA membership?

        If not, surely you just wait for the Martian traffic wardens to come and tow it away.

  8. Francis Boyle Silver badge

    Well, of course

    they wouldn't have had this problem is they'd just followed the plans and fitted it with a giant spiral drill bit.

  9. Danny 2 Silver badge


    "It's not that common, it doesn't happen to every guy and it is a big deal."

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's Trump

    Since USA is the first there, Trump has claims on all the minerals Mas has to offer. So he is farting from his mouth from underneath the surface, frustrating any further drilling in the disputed area.

    There's gold and diamonds in them thar hills and soils, I tell ya.

  11. Chris G Silver badge

    Limited penetration?

    Perhaps using the scoop to pile soil and rocks on top might help?

    1. Spherical Cow Silver badge

      Re: Limited penetration?

      If they make a pile 5m high over the mole, can they claim to have reached target depth??

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Limited penetration?

        Very appropriate nick you've got there.

  12. Landor Nirsan

    Mars says NO

    I can imagine Mars resents being probed by aliens....

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Mars says NO


      Clearly one should ask permission before penetration.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Mars says NO

        If Mars says no, would that be a Mars bar?

  13. Tikimon

    No glove, no love

    So there you are, watching dust devils and basking in the distant sunlight, and suddenly another one of those funny machines falls out of the sky. You're long used to them running about your surface (it tickles). But THIS one, without even flowers or a cheap dinner, starts a cylindrical penetrator moving vigorously in and out, trying to work it deep inside you. How rude! You're not THAT kind of planet, no matter what Mercury says about you. The ingress is rejected and blocked, and you sulk for a few months.

    So once again, humans have built a machine that mirrors themselves. Send it somewhere new and it starts trying to f**k the first place it can shove its tool.

  14. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    "access denied"

  15. red floyd

    They should have used something else...

    Like an Illudium-Q36 Explosive Space Modulator

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Mars needs help

    Someone keeps trying to penetrate me and I keep pushing them out but they won't take no for an answer!

    #MeToo - Mars

  17. TeeCee Gold badge

    Can't really blame NASA.

    Let's face it. Digging a hole in the ground? It's not exactly Rocket Science you know.

    1. 96percentchimp

      Re: Can't really blame NASA.

      They should send Bruce Willis and a team of drilling experts. You can't expect a robot to do a real Merkin Man's job.

  18. a_mu

    Wrong direction

    Did some one install it up side down ?

  19. TrumpSlurp the Troll


    Did I just read that the other experiment is a Seismometer?

    Located right next to a jackhammer?

    What could possibly go wrong?

    1. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: Seismometer?

      Actually they can get some pretty amazing science out of the pair of them. By listening to the moles hammering, the Seismometer readings can be used to get a really detailed look at the local sub-surface conditions to quite a depth (sorry cant remember the values now).

      Plus the Mole, once its on its way down, is pretty damn fast, so you're only talking a short time where the Mole's hammering is eclipsing the Seismometers search for marsquakes...

  20. SealTeam6


    Computer says No.

  21. 96percentchimp

    Insight's drill debacle demonstrates why we need manned missions to Mars

    I salute the efforts of NASA's engineers to get this to work, but how much easier would it be with people who could survey the site, choose the best location, and adapt the drilling gear for the conditions?

    Unmanned probes are great for passive observations, but if you want to interact with an unknown environment to this degree, you need a lot more flexibility and brainpower on the ground.

    Insight is becoming a great argument against those boring bastards who think manned spaceflight is a waste of time and money.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Insight's drill debacle demonstrates why we need manned missions to Mars

      Given the weight of the wetware and its support systems, think of the kit you could put up if you had the luxury of sending all that mass. You could certainly send up a fully equipped electric mini-JCB, another piece of kit to put it upright if it falls over, and a load of cameras on little rovers.

      The limitation isn't the lack of people. Its the lack of maximum payload.

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