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NASA Insight lander will give its stuck Mars 'Mole' a push

The heat probe has been treading soil for a year now.

Insight's arm is positioned to push on the Mole. 

NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Insight lander is a picture of perseverance. The lander deployed a burrowing heat probe, known as the "Mole," in early 2019 on a mission to dig deep into Mars to take the planet's temperature. It hasn't gone well. NASA is now trying a new method to encourage the stuck Mole to move.

The heat probe has a history of popping back out of the Mars soil instead of hammering downward like it's supposed to. The unexpected soil makeup of this part of Mars seems to be causing the trouble. "Rather than being loose and sandlike, as expected, the dirt granules stick together," NASA said in a release Friday. The Mole is bouncing in place instead of digging in. 

The Insight team tweeted a GIF of the lander's arm setting its scoop in place on top of the Mole, saying it was "going to try something we never thought we'd do."

NASA has been avoiding the pushing operation to protect the tether that connects the Mole to the lander. "With few alternatives left, the team has decided to try helping the Mole dig by carefully pressing on its back cap while attempting to avoid the tether," the space agency said.

It could take several weeks to test out this new operation. NASA is also considering using the scoop on the lander's arm to fill in soil around the heat probe, but that move will depend on how well the push method works out. 

The Mole's ongoing odyssey shows NASA's dedication to working through the challenges of robotic Mars exploration. The rest of Insight's science mission has gone well, as the lander listens for marsquakes and captures the "sounds" of the planet.