An eye-opening event in the lives of most children occurs the day one of their precious toys or perhaps the television or an electronic device stops working and they bring it to their father to fix. Watching anxiously for him to carefully open it, do something inside, close it up and turn it on, a more likely scenario is that Dad holds it in one hand, takes the other and smacks it hard. If that doesn’t work, he may bash it against the table or hit it with something harder than his and as you look on in horror.
Of course, horror turns to admiration when the thing begins working again as Dad brags that it’s not how hard you hit it, it’s knowing WHERE to hit it. Well, NASA is obviously run by a few dads because that’s exactly what happened recently when a heat probe nicknamed “the Mole” didn’t dig a hole as its name suggests it should, so the Insight received instructions to … get ready … whack a Mole! Did it work?
The “Mole,” part of the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, is a 16-inch-long (40 cm) spike connected to a hammering mechanism that’s supposed to dig up to 16 feet (5 meters) into the Martian surface. Unfortunately, the soil in the area where InSight is parked is denser and rockier than expected, and the mole has twice popped back out of its hole before reaching 16 feet. This has been going on for a year and, after all other suggestions for fixing the problem failed, the NASA team decided to tell InSight to whack the mole with the shovel it’s supposed to use to scoop the dirt excavated by said mole. The whack was gentle – almost a push – so as not to damage the cover on the mole. Just like a dad, the team held its breath as it tried to activate the expensive excavation device again.
A bit of good news from #Mars: our new approach of using the robotic arm to push the mole appears to be working! The teams @NASAJPL/@DLR_en are excited to see the images and plan to continue this approach over the next few weeks. 💪 #SaveTheMole
The mole was saved! The gentle tap worked and the mole is back to inserting the probe in order to measure heat under the Martian surface and help determine how the planet was formed.
While NASA engineers are excited about whacking the mole back into operation, it’s also a bit depressing when you realize the project is a true metaphor for where our space program is today – we really are just barely scratching the surface of planetary exploration and are a long way from putting footprints on the ground and real probes deep into the planet.
When compared to the technology dreamed up in movies, TV series and sci-fi novels, we really are just at the Whack-a-Mole stage.
Now, go call your dad and thank him for preparing you for a career with NASA.