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Sci-Tech

See NASA's InSight Mars lander try to squish the soil

Pat the planet.

NASA's Insight lander took this selfie in late 2018.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's InSight lander has a perplexing problem. The lander's "mole," a device that's designed to burrow deep under the planet's surface, got stuck pretty quickly after it deployed early in 2019. The heat probe just isn't digging like it's supposed to. So InSight is patting the ground in an attempt to unstick it.

The InSight team posted a fascinating GIF to Twitter on Friday showing the process. "I've pressed down next to the 'mole' several times, and it's hard to make this unusual soil collapse into the pit," the team wrote. 

NASA and DLR, the German Aerospace Center that created the instrument, are trying to collapse the soil around the pit the mole has already created, hoping to give it something to bite into. The mole is meant to burrow as far as 16 feet (5 meters), but it hit the snag at a depth of just 12 inches (30 centimeters).

Collapsing the hole and giving the digging instrument more friction might help the cause, but it's also possible the mole has hit a rock it just can't get past. The InSight team is still optimistic about finding a solution. 

The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe is designed to detect the planet's interior temperature. InSight's mission is focused on taking the planet's vital signs so we can learn more about how rocky planets like Earth and Mars form. 

Even if the mole moves no more, InSight will have plenty of other science activities to keep it busy, including the monitoring of marsquakes

The lander will be out of touch for a couple of weeks, but the InSight team will get back to troubleshooting soon. In the meantime, please enjoy the view of a machine pushing soil around on another planet.