Ground control to major… NASA’s Insight mission runs into trouble after hammering Mole fails to receive orders

NASA’s Insight Mission will shed light on how warm and geologically active Mars still is, study its reflexes as it whips about in its orbit around the sun, and provide essential clues on the evolution of the rocky planets of our solar system. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Insight mission on Mars has encountered its first problem, with a command from Ground Control failing to reach its Martian-based robot.

It started well, with the robotic lander successfully reaching Mars on November 26th, 2018, and releasing its scientific probes by placing them in its vicinity with a robotic arm. 

Then, Insight managed to relay the weather conditions on Mars, which this Tuesday were a pleasant -12C in the highs and -94C in the lows, with a breezy wind of 15 km/h. Next, it deployed a seismometer (SEIS) which examines the tectonic movements of the Red Planet. 

Poland’s drilling Mole will be burrow 5 metres into the planet’s core once it receives the order to do so from Ground Control. This time, though, the messages failed to arrive. Astronika/Facebook

Finally, on February 12th the time came for the HP3 probe and its underground Mole – the penetrating instrument, with the hammering mechanism designed by the Polish company Astronika. But the process, which began on Tuesday, encountered unexpected issues when the command to start hammering didn’t reach the robot. 

Professor Jerzy Grygorczuk, engineer and Astronika’s board member told TFN: “We can only guess why the message didn’t reach the lander. The next attempt to communicate with the hammer is moved to Thursday, but the information on whether it succeeded will reach us on Friday, since there is always a one day delay with the satellite communication.”

Astronika’s Professor Grygorczuk told TFN: 'Of course there is the risk of any types of failures, but I’m very optimistic. The device, all components and their functioning were very thoroughly tested before we sent them into space. We examined all eight copies, because that’s how many we produced. A surprise can happen, because these are difficult observations in extreme conditions, but if the only problem is temporary bad communication, I would not treat it as serious.'Astronika/Facebook

HP3’s role is to measure the heat flows inside underneath Mars surface. To gather data without interference from temperature changes caused by Mars’ weather, it will penetrate 5 meters into the ground. During the first stage the probe should dig 70 cm deep, let the mechanisms cool down and send the information back to Earth. The process, with hammering down for 30 to 50 cm and then resting will take a few weeks, even though the Mole could reach its five meter destination in just a few hours.

Grygorczuk explained the purpose of placing the probe on the Red planet: “This information combined with those received from the seismometer, which detects different  tectonic and other movements, will allow us to better understand the structure of the planet’s core. 

An artist’s drawing of Insight’s heat probe, showing what the different parts are. NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We can determine its size and how hot it is, based on the data we receive. The measurements will be different if the core is smaller and colder than if it is larger and warmer. In addition, with the information from the seismometer we will learn more about Mars’ structure, since the heats transfers differently through different types of materials”.

InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is a lander designed to give Mars its first thorough check up since it formed 4.5 billion years ago. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Even with the current setback, Grygorczuk remains confident about the fate of Insight’s mission: “Of course there is the risk of any types of failures, but I’m very optimistic. The device, all components and their functioning were very thoroughly tested before we sent them into space. We examined all eight copies, because that’s how many we produced. A surprise can happen, because these are difficult observations in extreme conditions, but if the only problem is temporary bad communication, I would not treat it as serious.”