back to article If you're feeling down, know that we've just buried a heat sensor in an alien planet. If NASA can get through Mars soil, we can get through 2020

NASA’s off-again, on-again Mars digger nicknamed the mole is finally buried in the planet’s soil and will take readings beneath the surface next year. If you’ve been following this Martian drama closely, you’ll know that the instrument, which came to the unforgiving dust world with NASA's InSight lander, has been in a spot of …

  1. Lorribot

    space stuff - surreal.

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Space - it's the realm of TRUE hackers, steely-eyed missile-men, the sparkiest of sparks, and the maddest of mad scientists.

      studying Mars this way should reveal a lot, including the presence of water in the soil, deeper down where it's not sublimating so much.

      Mars' atmosphere is 95% CO2 but extremely thin. Temperatures (below -60F) are such that CO2 is probably as effective as it can be at absorbing IR being radiated out into space, but being so thin, is unlikely to do a whole lot of good. The partial pressure of CO2 is around 600 pascals, if I deduce it correctly (from various sources), as compared to less than 50 pascals for earth (0.04%). Obviously there's more going on than just the partial pressure of CO2, which affects how well it can react with IR radiation escaping into space. 1 Atmosphere on earth is around 101,325 pascals (for those who didn't know already, _I_ had to look it up, I'm used to psi, tor, and bars). The rest is just maths.

      So as a result you have a case where the atmosphere probably is NOT going to have a great effect on temperature of the soil. And so the probe can measure deeper down and figure out what's happening at the "permafrost" layer, if there is one [or would be one] and get a really good picture of what's going on planet-wide. And I think they may find that there's water or ice 'down there' making a HUGE difference in temperatures. [probably what they're looking for, I say]. and of course, instruments top side to relay the data and take its OWN measurements.

      Should be fun.

      1. Anonymous Coward


        I think that a substantial reason that there's a much smaller greenhouse effect on Mars is that it's so dry. Water vapour is an aggressive greenhouse gas, and does a lot of the work on Earth. But there's almost no water vapour in the atmosphere of Mars. Water vapour doesn't control the effect on Earth because there's a vast sink/source of it (the oceans), so the amount in the atmosphere can't be tweaked the way CO2 can: if you add a bunch of water vapour you get rain, if you pull a bunch out you get evaporation.

  2. Anonymous Coward


    Admittedly the name in the title is already taken (by a Mars rover) but it perfectly encapsulates the efforts of the boffins and the digger itself.

    It also captures the NASA ethos of working around problems until they come to a solution.

    Here's hoping the Insight lander will provide years of insights in the future.

    (And let's hope it doesn't find that Mars might have COVID - the lander isn't designed for social distancing.)

    1. Anonymous Coward Silver badge

      Re: Perseverance

      When you've spent many millions on a project, you don't just say "oh well, that didn't work. What's next?"

      Still great that they have the ingenuity to work around the issues, and the foresight to include such a versatile robotic arm.

  3. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    But imagine

    How much faster this would have gone if there had just been someone on site to do this kind of stuff...

    1. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: But imagine

      Faster, yes. But exponentially more expensive. You could send out 10,000 Insight's for the cost of sending one person to mars to do this. Which in the end will provide more data?

      1. Paul Kinsler

        Re: Which in the end will provide more data?

        Presumably "more" isn't really the most useful metric; and something like "most interesting" or "most useful" would be preferable. Which is not to say that either remote or in-person is better, just that (as an extreme "straw man" example) terabytes of high resolution images and measurements of a single randomly chosen rock might give you the most data, but not really be what is wanted.

        1. Kristian Walsh

          Re: Which in the end will provide more data?

          Again, though, sending thousands of probes versus sending one human with limited mobility across the surface (we underestimate the impact of long distance travel because we grew up with engineered roads, high-speed rail and air travel)

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge
      IT Angle

      Re: But imagine

      as long as the remote connectivity works, any competent IT pro can put up with crappy baud rates, limited UIs, and unnecessarily slow response times, and STILL get the job done faster than actually BEING there... while in his underwear, sipping adult beverages and/or caffeine sources.

      icon, because [answered my own question, heh]

    3. Francis Boyle Silver badge


      If they'd only waited a decade or two and then asked Elon to do it, it would have been done last Tuesday,

  4. llaryllama

    2021 to finish drilling a hole, sounds about right for a contractor. Can you get the kettle on luv, I'm parched.

  5. Detective Emil


    This seems appropriate [YouTube].

  6. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Digging for victory

    > they will use the scoop to scrape additional soil on top of it, tamping down this soil to help provide more friction.

    So in reality the scoop is making a molehill!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Digging for victory

      If it perseveres long enough then it will be a mountain. Given the low gravity that would presumably be far higher than Earth's Everest.

  7. Dr. G. Freeman

    So, how deep does it have to go to get to the caramel ?

    Mine's the one with the chocolate bars in the pockets.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I thought Mars bars were now using a "lighter" filling like a Milky Way? The 6d bars of my childhood had a wonderful malty taste.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't you just hate it when it pops out unexpectedly.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      A quick tap on the bottom from a shovel should sort you out nicely sir.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The earth moved?

  9. lglethal Silver badge

    Great work from the whole team to get the mole in and working.

    The best description I can give you for how hard this mission is/was is as follows:

    I need you to drill a hole in a wall. Here's a picture from Google Maps of the house. Choose a drill bit and the feeds and speeds you're going to use.

    What do you mean you need more information?

    That's effectively what the mole team needed to do. You have pictures of the area you're going to dig in, you have the experience of what other landers have encountered in other parts of Mars, but you cant say exactly what will be in the area where you will actually land. Based on the other landers, the Duricrust (the part of the soil that clumps together and doesnt refill into the hole) was only expected to be 5-10cm deep as a maximum. But here it turned out to be about 25cm deep, which really screwed with the ability of the mole to operate. One of Mars's little jokes no doubt.

    So to find a way to get the Mole deep enough to operate, was really a great achievement for the whole team. Beers for all involved...

    From an Ex-mole team member.... :)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Reminds me of when the central heating boiler was fitted. Cutting a square hole in the wall for the flue was expected to be a quick bash - until they found the ground floor external wall was made of engineering bricks.

      Can always tell when new neighbours decide to hang up a fitting in the kitchen - you hear their drill going for ages. To cut an inset for a power socket took me nearly two hours by drilling a tight matrix of holes and then using the cold chisel.

      On the other hand the upstairs rooms' external walls are breeze block - drills like butter.

  10. sitta_europea Silver badge

    So how deep is it now?

    1. Spherical Cow

      Drilling hasn't started again yet so still only about 35cm below the surface.

  11. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Seems that Mars is like the Earth. Both follow Sods Law of Ground Investigation. That's the one that ensures e.g. the only lump of wood in your peat core will be in the middle of the period you're interested in.

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