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Tech Report – A Robot Has Been Stuck on Mars for Months

Specifically, on Elysium Planitia, a smooth plain in the planet’s northern hemisphere, where a NASA spacecraft called InSight resides.

Insight touched down on the surface last November and used its robotic arm and five-fingered hand to take out.

The cider-colored ground was presently plagued by scientific instruments, like a well-arranged picnic spread. Once the spacecraft had settled in by late February, one of the instruments, a probe designed to burrow deep into the Martian ground, started hammering away.

Mars Rover
Mars Rover

Then, suddenly, it stopped. After travelling three hundred million miles to Mars, the probe got stuck just inches below the surface. It has remain wedged there since, but NASA hopes a delicate rescue operation could soon free it.

“We’d hoped to be well into the ground by now,” Smrekar, the deputy principal investigator of the Insight mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told me.

NASA dispatched Insight to Mars to study the interior of the red planet, which, even after many decades of missions, scientists still know little about.

The mission would facilitate scientists confirm what Mars is like on the within, and whether its guts resemble another rocky planet—our own.

The probe made up of a spike and a sensor-studded tether is designed to burrow nearly 16 feet into the surface. That is deeper than previous probes have gone “on different planets, moon, or asteroid,” according to NASA excluding our planet Earth, of course.

The tether was speculated to follow the spike down and measure the temperature returning from the planet’s interior. The machine only made it 12 inches. “At first it was making fabulous progress, and then just abruptly stopped moving forward,” Smrekar said.

The team was stunned. Maybe the instrument had hit a rock, they thought. The scientists and engineers of the Insight mission had been ready for such a scenario; throughout testing before launch, the heat probe, they call “the mole,” had shown it could break some rocks and even maneuver around others. The team instructed the mole to keep on hammering, just in case the force shattered the obstacle, but that didn’t help.

Scientists currently suspect another culprit: the Martian soil itself. As the probe beat, loose dirt was supposed to swirl around it, providing friction for its back-and-forth movements. But the soil might have clumped together instead and stirred away from the instrument. Eventually, a moat of empty space might have emerged between them.

“Some friction is important for the mechanism to work, as the recoil produced by the mechanism during hammering needs to be absorbed,” said Matthias Grott, a scientist at the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Planetary research, that designed the instrument for NASA. Without that friction, the probe simply bounces in situ.

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