NASA’s InSight Lander has only been on the surface of Mars for a few months, but it seems to already be running into problems. According to an , the lander’s ground probe, which was designed to tunnel several feet into the ground, has hit some sort of obstacle and gotten stuck.
NASA’s InSight lander is a bit different from a typical NASA mission to Mars. Insight is a stationary lander primarily designed to carry one scientific instrument: a probe several feet long intended to bury itself several feet into the ground. From there, the probe will measure temperature variations in the soil and learn more about the planet’s soil and the inner workings of its core.
At least, that was the plan. However, after the probe descended about a foot into the soil, it stopped. Images from the lander show that the probe has also rotated slightly and got knocked about 15 degrees away from vertical. The is that the probe hit something on the way down.
That was one of NASA’s biggest fears going into this mission. It’s too tough to send a drill to Mars, so the probe actually works like a mini jackhammer that pounds its way through the soil. The downside of this approach is that the probe can get stuck if it runs into a large enough rock. The landing site NASA picked, Jezero Crater, was chosen in part because the surface was sandy and contained few rocks.
Still, there’s no way for NASA to know what lies beneath the surface before InSight could land, so this mission always carried some risk. NASA did prepare for this possibility and will spend the next two weeks figuring out their next move. Even in a worst-case scenario where the probe can’t descend any further, NASA can still learn a great deal about the subsurface of Mars.
But it’s also a strong possibility that there’s only a layer of gravel or some small rocks causing InSight’s problems. If that’s the case, the probe should be able to force its way through and extend to its full length. We’ll find out sometime in the next few weeks which one of those scenarios is correct.