NASA announced on Thursday that a “mole” on Mars has ended its mission after landing on the Red Planet nearly two years ago.
The mole — also called a digger, drill, and probe — was built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and deployed by NASA’s InSight lander. Its purpose was to drill 16 feet into Martian soil to take its temperature and…well, it never managed to do that.
The digger had drilled down merely 14 inches before getting stuck in the first month of its mission. Months later in Oct. 2019, NASA engineers made a plan to put the digger back on track by using a robotic scoop to help refill the 14 inches and support the digger in its next attempt at burrowing down 16 feet. The team at NASA was confident that the probe was finally ready to go, but they were wrong.
NASA’s next idea, in Feb. 2020, was to direct the InSight lander to push on the probe with its robotic arm.
That didn’t work, either. After attempting to use the scoop on InSight’s robotic arm once again on Jan. 9, 2021, the probe made 500 additional hammer strokes with no progress. At that point, the team declared the probe dead.
“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said DLR’s Tilman Spohn in NASA’s announcement.
There is good news, however. Spohn said that the work on this probe will benefit future missions, as they’ve learned a lot about the surface of Mars.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA’s Washington headquarters, said he was proud of the mission’s team — and that their work was purposeful. “This is why we take risks at NASA — we have to push the limits of technology to learn what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
“In that sense, we’ve been successful: We’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions to Mars and elsewhere,” Zurbuchen continued, “and we thank our German partners from DLR for providing this instrument and for their collaboration.”