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NASA declares Mars lander InSight's burrowing 'mole' is dead

Sleep tight, little mole. Your big dreams couldn't compete with Mars' crazy soil.

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The InSight mole team tried heroically to save the mole by pressing on it with the lander's arm scoop, but ultimately couldn't get it to dig down into Mars.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here's to all the plucky machines that have tangled with Mars and ultimately lost. Goodbye, Opportunity. Godspeed, Beagle 2. We hardly knew you, Schiaparelli. And now we must bid farewell to the "mole" part of NASA's InSight lander mission.

The lander itself is fine and healthy and still studying marsquakes, but the mole's efforts to dig into the red planet have been stymied every step of the way. On Thursday, NASA announced the end of the mole's journey.

The mole is the burrowing part of the lander's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3), an instrument designed to dig down deep and take Mars' internal temperature, much like a doctor doing a checkup. Mars was not a willing patient.

InSight landed in late 2018 and we've been following the mole's trials and travails ever since it first deployed in early 2019. The mole -- which was built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) -- behaved like a little pile driver that uses a hammering motion to descend. But Mars wasn't having it. The mole kept backing out of its hole instead of digging down.

"We've given it everything we've got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible," said HP3 principal investigator, Tilman Spohn of the DLR. "Fortunately, we've learned a lot that will benefit future missions that attempt to dig into the subsurface."  

NASA and DLR tried all sorts of tricks, from pressing on the mole with InSight's arm to scooping soil onto it. The mole team made one final attempt to gain some ground last weekend, but the unexpected soil properties in InSight's landing area once again proved too much for it. The clumpy texture of the soil meant the mole couldn't get enough friction to burrow.

Now is the time to salute the mole, its team and the ingenuity put into the mission. Scientists have learned about the soil in this area of Mars and they developed new and sophisticated ways of using InSight's robotic arm. This knowledge will feed into future Mars exploration missions.

This has been a bittersweet week for NASA and the Mars InSight lander team. But the good news is NASA officially extended InSight's science mission through December 2022. The mole is dead. Long live InSight.

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