InSight : the drilling of Mars finally resumes !

NASA InSight

– News of October 22, 2019 –

InSight’s drill rig has been stuck for 8 months

The HP3 drill rig installed on the InSight lander has been designed to dig to a depth of 5 meters, unwinding thermal sensors. This should make it possible to study how the heat propagates in the Martian crust. But the drill rig dug a few tens of centimeters before stopping in the soil of the planet Mars on March 7, 2019. This situation puts the whole mission in danger.

For almost 8 months, the DLR and NASA engineers have refused to give up. They have made repeated attempts to resume drilling and it looks like they have finally found a viable solution last week. The drill rig has dug a too big hole. It needs friction with the walls of this hole to work. A few months ago, the mission team attempted to collapse the hole by pressing the surface with the manipulator arm of the InSight lander, but without success.

After another attempt, drilling finally resumes

They decided last week to take a little more risk. InSight’s robotic arm was pressed against the top of the drill rig to lock it in a position of maximum friction, which could damage it. The HP3 drill rig is not designed to work this way, but sometimes you have to make daring bets. This method allowed the HP3 drill rig to resume drilling.

The InSight mission is not saved yet

However, it’s not over yet. The HP3 drill rig has not even reached 10% of its goal. But this success gives reason to be optimistic because it confirms that it is a friction problem that prevents drilling from continuing. The HP3 drill rig does not seem to have stopped on an underground rock.

The technique is effective as long as at least one end of the drill head is exposed to the open air. Once the drill head is underground, the InSight manipulator arm will no longer be able to help the drill rig. If the experience blocks again, however, German and US engineers already have ideas, like trying to fill the hole with soil using the InSight’s robot mini-excavator. This could work if the HP3 drill rig reaches a depth of 2 or 3 meters, but the results will be harder to interpret.

This shows that we can do miracles with a little ingenuity. Hopefully the HP3 drill rig will join the pantheon of missions that have started badly but have continued their mission.

The InSight’s drill is still inoperative

– News of October 8, 2019 –

On the planet Mars, the InSight’s drill is still blocked a few dozen centimeters below the surface. NASA and DLR, the German space agency, will make another rescue attempt by using the lander arm to press the drill against one of the walls of the hole it has dug. This should increase the friction and thus the drilling efficiency.

Meanwhile, the other scientific instrument of InSight, a seismometer designed by CNES (the French space agency), works perfectly. It has already recorded more than 100 seismic events of which 21 have been confirmed as Marsquakes. These observations already make possible to get an idea of ​​the properties of the Martian crust. They seem to be halfway between those of the Earth and those of the Moon. Another amazing observation comes from the magnetometer associated with SEIS. Mysterious magnetic pulsations were detected several times around midnight local time.

The drilling of the planet Mars by InSight still has not resumed, the DLR and NASA imagine a new solution

– News of September 15, 2019 –

It has now been more than nine months since InSight landed on the planet Mars and the drill of its HP3 instrument is still stuck about fifteen centimeters below the surface of Mars. The heat flow sensor is supposed to go down to a depth of 5 meters. This scientific instrument is thus for the moment incapable of fulfilling its mission.

NASA and DLR have multiplied initiatives to resume drilling but so far without success. InSight’s robotic arm was used to remove the HP3 support structure, and then broke the ground close to the hole, the goal being to increase the friction of the drill head with the ground. The main problem is that HP3 drilled a hole too big for itself. German and American engineers working on the mission, however, have not yet abandoned.

A new solution could be tested in the coming days. This time, the robotic arm will be used to press the drill head against one of the walls of the hole, to artificially increase friction. The method is risky but it may be worth it.

SEIS, the other scientific instrument of InSight that has been provided by CNES, the French space agency, continues to function normally. It listens to the soil of the planet Mars in search of micro-earthquakes. The way these waves cross the planet Mars can allow us to learn a lot about its inner composition.

So far, the results of the InSight mission are mixed. One of its scientific instruments works perfectly while the other is unable to take action. Let’s hope that the DLR and NASA engineers will find a solution for HP3.

NASA and DLR continue their investigations so that InSight can resume drilling

– News of July 16, 2019 –

For several months, the drill of the HP3 instrument of InSight is blocked a few centimeters under the surface of the planet Mars. In June, NASA and DLR decided to raise its support structure to try to see it more clearly. This operation was successfully conducted on June 25th and 27th. The drilling probe is now exposed, which should allow American and German scientists to make a better diagnosis. It might be possible to try to increase the friction of the soil by pressing it with the manipulator arm of InSight. It is also possible that the drill had hit on a large rock, a problem that would probably be insurmountable.

The InSight’s seismometer records tremors on Mars

– News of April 28, 2019 –

On April 6, the SEIS seismometer put on the Mars planet by the InSight lander recorded a signal that could be “Marsquakes”. Three other signals recorded at different times could also be Marsquakes, but it is less likely. The 6 April signal is very weak. It corresponds almost exactly to the type of signal that the Apollo program teams had been able to record following tremors on the Moon.

This point of comparison is important because the Earth is too active to be an effective referent. This first signal is unfortunately too weak to analyze the depths of the planet Mars. However, it provides crucial information. The planet Mars is not completely dead. It does not have plate tectonics but its slow cooling continues to cause tremors.

Hopefully the InSight seismometer will record some more violent seismic events. The analysis of seismic waves could provide valuable information on the internal composition of the planet Mars. It is impossible to know when these events will occur. Let’s hope it will be soon because the InSight’s solar panels are already starting to be covered with Martian dust.

NASA is trying to find out what is blocking the InSight drill

– News of April 14, 2019 –

March has been complicated for InSight. The HP3 scientific instrument encountered difficulties early in its operations. The drill of the scientific instrument stumbled upon something, perhaps rock or a harder layer of regolith. This triggered the interruption of drilling to understand what is happening.

NASA has devised a test in which the hammer HP3 will be started while SEIS, the seismometer of InSight, will record the vibrations. This may help to uncover clues about the nature of the problem. But there is a good chance that the HP3 drill will still be immobilized for a few weeks. For the experiment to be successful, it must be able to dig up to at least three meters deep, ideally up to 5 meters. A first problem just 30 centimeters from the surface of the planet Mars shows that drilling will be complicated.

The seismometer of the InSight mission recorded its first signals from the planet Mars. These signals are not due to Marsquakes or meteor impacts. Martian winds produce microseism in SEIS data, such as low frequency tremor. This first detection shows that the seismometer works as well as expected.

Over the two years of InSight’s primary mission, the mission team expects to detect about one Marsquake per month. They should occur in groups, and they should be distant of several weeks or months. It will therefore be necessary to wait before InSight gives its first results.

Martian soil exploration by InSight is delayed by stones

– News of March 5, 2019 –

The heat flow sensor installed on the InSight lander on Mars is designed to collect valuable information on the thermal conductivity of the Martian crust. It must first drill five meters deep. To dig, the instrument uses a kind of jackhammer that hits the ground a hundred times an hour. The process is very slow, especially as the terrain seems more difficult than expected.

The first hours of drilling allowed the instrument to dive a few tens of centimeters into the ground. It has already met two stones. The indenter is designed to be able to spread them to the side while bowing slightly, but this process requires a lot of time and slows the maneuver. Let’s hope that the depths of the planet Mars will have fewer stones.

It would be very annoying to encounter a large stone at shallow depths because they can not be pushed so easily to the side. Drilling should continue for at least the entire month of March.

The InSight lander continues to deploy its scientific instruments

– News of February 18, 2019 –

The SEIS seismometer, deployed by InSight at the end of 2018, was covered with a protective bell at the beginning of February to isolate it from wind and temperature changes. The position of the cable between the lander and the seismometer was slightly adjusted because the seismometer vibrated a bit because of the Martian wind. The seismometer aims to record the seismic waves spread in the crust of the planet Mars.

InSight’s robotic arm has just installed a jackhammer right next to itself. The heat flow sensor needs to dig five meters deep to set up its thermal sensors. It will take 30 to 40 days for the instrument to make its hole. Let’s hope there are no big boulders on the drill’s path as it is designed to dig only in relatively soft terrain. If it can not go down to 5 meters deep, the experience data will be much more difficult to analyze.

However, there is almost no rock on the surface of the place where InSight landed, which is a good sign for the composition of the subsoil. Thanks to the seismometer and the heat flow sensor, we will understand a little better the internal structure of the planet Mars.

InSight records the sound of the Martian wind

– News of December 11, 2018 –

On Mars, the InSight lander continues its deployment. For now, the priority is to test the instruments and systems of the lander. The photos of the environment where InSight is located show that NASA seems to have well chosen the landing site, which seems extremely flat. This will facilitate the installation of the ground seismometer of the planet Mars, named SEIS.

The placement of instruments is a critical decision for the mission. It could be several months before a site is designated. But even on InSight, the seismometer SEIS already records small vibrations caused by the Martian wind blowing on the solar panels of the lander. This corresponds to a barely audible sound. This is the first time we are able to hear the Martian wind. But we must not forget that this same wind and the dust that it carries will be a real danger for the mission in the long run.

InSight landed on the planet Mars !

– News of November 27, 2018 –

The landing of InSight on the planet Mars went smoothly. As usual, the atmospheric reentry and landing phases have been moments of high tension, but this is starting to be the routine for NASA. Indeed, the US space agency has succeed all its martian landings the last two decades.

The landing took place in the area of ​​Elysium Planitia, a region close to the Martian equator that has the distinction of being very flat. NASA generally prefers to put its robots near ancient rivers, where geological and biochemical discoveries are most likely. But InSight is not directly interested in life on Mars, it is the interior of the planet that preoccupies this new lander. The chosen area has made it easy to land, its proximity to the Martian equator will provide maximum brightness for InSight’s solar panels, and the ground should be flexible enough to allow deep drilling.

One of the two main tools of InSight will require to dig up to 5 meters below the surface of the planet Mars. A heat flux sensor will help to understand how heat flows from the planet’s core to its crust. This should help us better estimate the internal composition of the red planet. This scientific instrument was designed by the german space center (DLR). The other main instrument of InSight is a seismometer designed under the supervision of CNES. The tectonic activity of Mars has never been measured directly. We will therefore be able to discover the frequency of Mars quakes and the frequency of meteorite impacts. The study of seismic waves should provide valuable clues to the internal composition of the planet Mars.

While waiting to be able to start its scientific mission, InSight must carry out a medical assessment and to start. For the moment, everything seems to work well. NASA said that the solar panels of the robot are properly exposed to light. InSight has also sent its first pictures. As expected, the landscape around InSight is very flat.

The CubeSats MarCO A and B were launched in the wake of InSight with the mission to monitor its landing. These CubeSats transferred the signal that announced that InSight landed. This is the first time that CubeSats are used in an interplanetary mission. They survived for months under the harsh conditions of the interplanetary void. Since they do not have the ability to orbit the planet Mars, they will continue their path in a heliocentric orbit. This first success may push NASA and other space agencies to consider CubeSats as interesting tools for exploring the solar system. Their very light weight and high standardization makes it possible to launch this type of mission at a ridiculous cost.

It will take a few months to launch the scientific experiments of InSight and to carry out the drilling necessary for the installation of the heat flux sensor. The data collection will last at least two years. The first results should be released in 2019 or 2020.

InSight mission approaches Mars

– News of October 30, 2018 –

The InSight lander is approaching the red planet. If all goes well, it will land at the equator on November 26. InSight will have to observe the Martian depths using its seismometer and its heat flow sensor. The InSight lander is followed by the first two interplanetary CubeSats. These CubeSats will fly over Mars following the descent of InSight. The two tiny explorers, each the size of a shoebox, have transmitted their first images of the red planet.

The InSight lander has tested its seismometer in space

– News of September 25, 2018 –

The Insight lander is currently travelling to the planet Mars where it will land at the end of November to carry out measurements of heat propagation and seismic activity of the red planet. The Insight lander tests its instruments before arriving at its destination. Testing a seismometer in space is not useless because the instrument was able to detect and measure the launches of the micro-thrusters of the space probe. It even may have identified a micro-meteorite impact. This seismometer seems in perfect condition to help us understand what is happening in the depths of Mars.

The InSight robot will study the Martian soil

– News of September 19, 2017 –

The InSight lander is currently undergoing a series of tests before being launched next year to Mars. InSight is a robot designed by NASA to study the depths of the Martian subsoil using seismology and geodesy. It is not a rover but a stationary robot that will stay at its landing site.

By studying the depths of Mars, we can learn more about the Earth. Indeed, Mars is a relatively inactive planet for three billion years. Its rocky mantle has therefore changed very little since that time. But we think that the structure of the Earth and the structure of Mars are very similar. The activity of the Earth’s mantle makes it difficult to study its past. By focusing on Mars, we can look at a photo of the Earth’s mantle three billion years ago.

The InSight lander should be positioned near the Martian equator. InSight will be powered by two circular solar panels. The robot will deploy its two scientific instruments using a robotic arm. The first scientific instrument is a precision seismometer that will record any trace of seismic activity in the landing zone of the robot. This seismometer was designed by CNES. Its second scientific instrument will be a heat flow sensor. It must sink five meters below the surface of the ground, which will be the greatest depth dug by mankind on Mars. The heat flux sensor will be used to determine the thermal activity of the core and to understand the geothermal history of the planet Mars.

The mission is initially planned to last two years, but InSight could continue well beyond that date. The mission also includes two CubeSats that will serve as a communication relay during the descent phase of the InSight robot. Unable to fit into Martian orbit by their own means, they will then pursue a trajectory that will place them in an orbit around the sun.

Mars is today a planet whose core is almost inactive. With the InSight lander, NASA hopes to study the low residual activity of the planet Mars. This should also make it possible to determine in part the composition of the Martian mantle. The seismometer should be sensitive enough to capture the impacts of meteorites on the planet Mars. By studying their frequency, it will be possible to better understand the risks associated with a possible inhabited mission. In May of next year the lander InSight will be launched. It is currently the only mission scheduled for the planet Mars for 2018, before the invasion of orbiters, landers and rovers that will leave for Mars in 2020.

Image by NASA [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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