NASA's Curiosity Mars rover finally began drilling a unit with clay on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, collecting samples that formed in the presence of water. Reaching this area has been an important goal since Curiosity landed at Gale Crater seven years ago.
Meanwhile, in Germany and the United States, engineers on Earth are conducting additional tests to discover what prevents a device similar to a hammer known as "mole" from striking the Martian soil near the InSight Mars vehicle, pulling a chain of sensors from Sensitive temperature along behind.
Launched in May 2018, InSight, the acronym for Inland Exploration that uses Seismic Investigation, Geodesy and Heat Transport, landed on Mars on November 26. It was equipped with only two main instruments: an ultra sensitive seismometer provided by the French space agency and the Physical Heat and Heat Flow Probe of Germany, or HP3.
The HP3 instrument was designed to use an internal, spring-loaded hammer-type device, the mole, to penetrate Martian soil that is dragged along a wire carrying sensitive temperature sensors.
After about 10,000 hammer blows, the probe was expected to reach a maximum depth of about 5 meters (15 feet). The goal is to measure the thermal conductivity of the soil, which helps scientists extrapolate temperatures to the core.
But the mole encountered an obstacle below the surface of some kind on February 28 after making its way to only 30 centimeters (1 foot) on the floor of the red planet.
"We are investigating and testing several possible scenarios to discover what led to the" arrest "of the moles," said Torben Wippermann, test leader at the DLR Space Systems Institute in Bremen. Engineers are studying the seismic data collected during the initial hammering session to obtain information about what type of obstacle is preventing the mole from going farther and studying the effects of different types of sand.
An exact replica of the mole has been sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for additional testing in a simulated Mars surface environment.
"The possible measures to allow the instrument to sink further into the ground must … be meticulously tested and badyzed on Earth," the German aerospace agency said in a statement. The hammering is not expected to be attempted again for several weeks.
Curiosity's most traditional drill had no trouble burying it in the clay unit at Mount Sharp. In fact, the bedrock chosen for the first simulation session was so "soft" that the device did not have to use its percussion impactor.
"Curiosity has been on the road for almost seven years," said curiosity project manager Jim Erickson. "Finally, drilling in the clay unit is an important milestone in our trip to Mount Sharp."
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected the clay-bearing unit long before Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012. Mission scientists believe that the samples collected by the vehicle will explore the role of water in the formation of such strata at Mount Sharp.