NASA's InSight Lander is finally back to digging on the surface of Mars after getting its drill stuck in the rough soil for six months.
The American space agency announced on Friday that its Martian spacecraft is able to resume drilling on the Red Planet through the help of unconventional means.
Using InSight's Robotic Arm
By pinning the lander's "mole" heat probe using its own robotic arm, engineers discovered that they were able to give the tool the necessary friction it needs to continue digging through Mar's unexpectedly strong soil.
Since resuming its drilling on Oct. 8, the InSight lander has hammered the Martian surface 220 times over three separate occasions. While the spacecraft is taking longer to accomplish its goal of digging at least 16 feet into the planet's soil, it has yet to encounter any problems like it did at the start of the year.
"Seeing the mole's progress seems to indicate that there's no rock blocking our path," said Tilman Spohn, one of the researchers in-charge of operating InSight's Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package instrument.
"That's great news! We're rooting for our mole to keep going."
Digging Into The Martian Soil
NASA first had problems using the InSight lander's mole in February. The spacecraft was stymied by the planet's rough ground and managed to partially bury the heat probe. The instrument needed the friction from the surrounding soil in order to keep moving.
To address this, engineers tried using the InSight's robotic arm to help the mole regain movement. They tested the different maneuvers they could do with the arm using full-scale replicas of the lander and the heat probe.
The team found that the scoop on the robotic arm could be pressed against the mole in a "pinning" action to give the instrument the friction it needed to continue drilling.
NASA tried out the technique on the actual InSight lander, allowing the spacecraft's heat probe to return to digging. So far, the instrument has been able to burrow nearly 2 centimeters (3/4 of an inch) into the Martian soil over the past week.
Despite its slow progress, NASA researchers are happy to see the InSight's mole back in action.
Troy Hudson, one of the engineers in-charge of the mole recover effort, said they are thrilled to see the lander's heat probe digging again.
He said it was crushing when they first encountered the problem with InSight's mole, but they decided to press on. Now that it's back drilling again, he said he felt giddy.
The NASA InSight mission is led by researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.