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NASA InSight lander 'mole' suffers another Mars misfortune

NASA is trying to take Mars' temperature with a heat probe, but Mars isn't having it.

InSight snapped this selfie on Mars.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars is a planet. It doesn't have feelings or intentions, but it's hard not to personify it when it seems to be fighting back against our attempts to study it.

NASA's InSight lander has been struggling to send a heat probe beneath the planet's surface. Just when it seemed to be making progress, Mars rejected it.

The InSight team tweeted a GIF on Sunday showing the Heat and Physical Properties Package (HP3) probe popping back up out of the Mars soil from where it had partially buried itself. HP3 is better known by its "mole" nickname.

"Mars continues to surprise us," the NASA InSight team wrote. "While digging this weekend the mole backed about halfway out of the ground." NASA said preliminary assessment suggests "unexpected soil properties" are to blame for this bizarre behavior.

The probe was supposed to burrow its way down to a depth of 16 feet (5 meters) to take the temperature of Mars from the inside. It's all part of the mission's purpose to study how rocky planets (like Mars and Earth) are formed.

The mole got stuck shortly after its initial deployment in February. Recent efforts to use the lander's robotic arm to help it along seemed to be working until this latest setback.

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) designed the heat probe. NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen took to Twitter to say engineers are now analyzing the data to try to figure out what happened. We expect to know more sometime this week.

"One possibility observed in testing on Earth is that soil could fall in front of the mole's tip as it rebounds, gradually filling the hole in front of it as the mole backs out," the InSight team said in a follow-up tweet.

It will be a disappointment if the mole doesn't succeed, but the rest of InSight's work is going gangbusters. The lander, which touched down in November 2018, has taken a selfie, picked up on marsquakes, listened to the wind and even won an Emmy. That's an impressive list of accomplishments for a young mission.