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NASA Mars lander may be able to save its stuck 'mole'

A clever workaround seems to be helping the InSight lander burrow into the Red Planet.

NASA's Mars InSight lander snapped this selfie in December 2018.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Space fans hate it when machines die on Mars, so we've been rooting for the Mars InSight lander's "mole" instrument to emerge from its funk. 

The NASA lander is healthy, but a burrowing heat probe known as the mole got stuck just below the surface back in February. The probe, which is designed to take the internal temperature of Mars, was supposed to work its way down to a depth of 16 feet (5 meters).

NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), which designed the heat probe, have been hatching creative solutions for unsticking it ever since. InSight tried patting the ground around the probe in August in an attempt to collapse the soil and give the mole some grip. 

The latest effort involved applying pressure to the mole using InSight's arm scoop. It seems to be helping. DLR tweeted "Good news from Mars!" on Monday that the mole made progress and dug down just over an inch (3 centimeters).

Scientists were concerned the mole may have hit a rock, but the latest movement seems to indicate that's not the case. If this method continues to work, it may have just been a matter of the mole losing friction.

This result gives scientists hope the mole may be able to resume operations. InSight is on a mission to take Mars' vital signs so it can learn more about how rocky planets (including Earth) form.

The lander has performed like a champ since landing in late 2018. With luck, this mole incident will be just a hiccup in the mission's timeline.