Opportunity's mission is over, but InSight almost ready for a driller thriller below Martian surface

Self-hammering spike to see what weather's like 5m down

Artist's concept of InSight with instruments deployed, ready to do the science
Artists concept of InSight with instruments deployed, ready to do the science (pic: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Unfazed by the outpouring of grief over NASA's admission that its teenaged Opportunity rover had likely trundled its last, the agency's lander, InSight, managed to position its second instrument on the surface of the Red Planet.

Ambitious scientists plan to send the device burrowing up to five metres, quite a bit further than previous efforts which, in a real sense, just scratched at the surface. NASA's Viking 1 lander managed to scoop 22cm down back in the 1970s while InSight's predecessor, Phoenix, dug down 18cm.

Images downlinked from the lander confirmed that the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, or HP3, was successfully plucked from InSight's deck by the machine's robot claw in another nail-biting manoeuvre and placed about a metre away from where the seismometer was dumped and then covered with a protective shield.

Provided by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), HP3 has a vertical tube to hold the 40cm long "mole". A tether keeps everything connected to InSight itself, while another attached to the top of the mole features heat sensors to measure the subsurface temperature. Additional sensors will track how easily heat moves through the subsurface.

Boffins hope that the results from the machine will give an insight into how rocky planets like Mars are formed and what is driving the geology.

The five-metre depth is required to stop the effects of surface temperature variations or even InSight's own heaters from affecting measurements.

The InSight team reckon a month or more will be needed before the mole reaches its maximum depth, and the plan is to stop every 50cm to perform a thermal conductivity test. This is achieved by measuring how long it takes to heat up after letting it cool for a couple of days.

Digging deeper into Mars has been an long-time ambition of scientists. The UK's doomed Beagle 2 lander was equipped with a Planetary Underground Tool (also nicknamed the "mole") capable of burrowing down 1.5 metres and retrieving a sample for analysis rather than checking the temperature. ESA's upcoming trundlebot, Rosalind Franklin, can also delve underground, with a drill capable of retrieving samples from two metres down.

Scientists plan to commence the drilling "within a few days". There is no word on whether Bruce Willis has a team standing by to help out. ®

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