NASA's Mars Curiosity robot finally began drilling into a clay-containing unit on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp, collecting samples formed in the presence of water. Reaching this area is a major goal since Curiosity landed at Gale Crater seven years ago.
Back on Earth, German and American engineers are now doing additional tests to understand what is preventing a hammer-like device, called "the mole," from hitting Martian soil near InSight Mars Lander. Sensitive temperature sensors along behind.
Launched in May 2018, InSight – the acronym for Inland Exploration using seismic surveys, geodesy and heat transport – landed on Mars on November 26th. It was equipped with two main instruments: an ultra-sensitive seismometer provided by the French Space Agency and the German probe for measuring heat and physical properties, or HP3.
The HP3 instrument was designed to use an internal device similar to a spring hammer, the mole, which sinks into the Martian soil behind a cable carrying sensitive temperature sensors.
After approximately 10,000 hammer blows, the probe was to reach a maximum depth of approximately 5 meters (15 feet). The goal is to measure the thermal conductivity of the soil, helping scientists extrapolate temperatures to the heart.
The mole did, however, come up against an underwater obstacle on February 28, after having pioneered a path just 30 centimeters off the ground of the red planet.
"We are studying and testing different possible scenarios to determine what led to the shutdown of the" mole ", said Torben Wippermann, test manager at the Institute for Space Systems DLR Bremen.The engineers study the seismic data collected during the first hammering session to better understand what kind of obstacle prevents the mole from going further and studies the effects of different types of sand.
An exact replica of the mole was sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for further testing in a simulated Mars surface environment.
"Possible measures allowing the instrument to sink deeper into the ground must … be meticulously tested and analyzed on Earth," said the German Aerospace Agency in a statement. Pounding should not be attempted for several weeks.
The more traditional Curiosity drill had no problem burrowing into the Mount Sharp clay unit. In fact, the bedrock chosen for the first session of the exercise 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 Jim Erickson, Curiosity Project Manager. "Finally, drilling in the clay unit is an important step in our journey to Mount Sharp."
The Mars reconnaissance orbiter detected the clay unit well before Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012. Mission scientists believe that the samples collected by the rover will illuminate the role of water in the formation of such layers on Mount Sharp.