The DLR experiment HP3 will be the first to fully automatically burrow five metres into the Martian soil

Hammering down to Martian depths – countdown to NASA's InSight mission

03 May 2018

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  • Die NASA%2dSonde InSight auf der Marsoberfläche
    Artist’s impression of the NASA InSight lander on the Martian surface

    Launched on 5 May 2018, NASA’s InSight spacecraft landed on 26 November 2018 just north of the Martian equator, and deploy its solar panels. SEIS, an instrument for recording seismic waves (left of image), and HP3, an instrument developed by DLR to measure the thermal conductivity of the Martian regolith and the heat flow from the interior of the planet (right of image), have been placed on the planet's surface.

  • Die Landestelle von InSight in der Elysium%2dEbene
    The landing site for the InSight mission in Elysium Planitia

    For the InSight mission, a landing area was sought that had to meet several scientific criteria, but above all space systems engineering criteria. For a secure energy supply from solar power and to avoid extreme diurnal and seasonal temperature variations, it could not be too far north or south of the equator, it had to be flat and, as far as possible, not covered by rocks. After a long selection process, engineers and scientists selected an area in a plain southwest of the large volcanic complex surrounding Elysium Mons. The chosen site is in Elysium Planitia, north of the Martian equator and the highland border – just a few hundred kilometres north of Gale Crater (below the ‘4’ in the latitude label), in which the NASA rover Curiosity has been driving since 2012. The image is a section of a global topographic map of Mars; blue and green are low-lying areas, yellow and red are elevated terrain. The image is about 5000 kilometres wide.

  • Wie sieht es im Inneren des Mars wirklich aus?
    What is the interior of Mars like?

    The InSight mission will investigate the internal structure of Mars and the processes at play inside the planet to acquire a better understanding of the formation and evolution of earth-like planets. Similar to the other terrestrial planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth and the Moon – Mars has a metallic core surrounded by a rocky mantle, over which lies a rocky crust. According to model calculations, the core has a temperature of about 1900 degrees Celsius and could still be molten if it contains a significant amount of sulphur. This is one of the questions that the InSight mission will address. The mission will also conduct a study of seismic activity and measure the meteorite impact rate on Mars.

  • HP3 cutaway rendering

    An artist's concept of InSight's heat probe, called the Heat Physical Properties Package, or HP³.

    This annotated cutaway rendering labels various parts inside of the instrument.

    JPL manages InSight for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. InSight is part of NASA's Discovery Program, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the InSight spacecraft, including its cruise stage and lander, and supports spacecraft operations for the mission.

    A number of European partners, including France's Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are supporting the InSight mission. CNES and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP) provided the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) instrument, with significant contributions from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Zurich, Switzerland, Imperial College London and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and JPL. DLR provided the Physical Properties Package (HP³) instrument, with significant contributions from the Space Research Center (CBK) of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Astronika in Poland. Spain’s Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) supplied the wind sensors.

  • Instrumente und technische Komponenten von InSight
    Instruments and technical components of InSight

    InSight’s structural design is similar to that of NASA’s Phoenix lander from 2008. The main component is a platform two metres in diameter, on which most of the system components – the experiments in their ‘transport mode’, the antennas, the on-board computer, the thrusters, the propellant tanks and three telescopic legs are attached. A robotic arm will be deployed after landing and lift the experiments HP3 and SEIS from the platform onto the Martian surface. At the side of the platform are two solar panels, which produce a maximum of 700 watts, depending on the distance between Mars and the Sun. The RISE experiment is conducted from the platform itself.

  • Empfindliche Neigungssensorik im „Mole“ mit montierten „Galaxiefedern“
    Sensitive tiltmeter in the ‘Mole’ with fitted ‘galaxy springs’

    A special system isolates the sensors from the impacts and in doing so minimises their exposure to stress. For this purpose, the STATIL system is fitted with specially patented double helix springs – also known as ‘galaxy springs’.

  • Das Radiometer RAD für das HP3%2dExperiment
    The RAD radiometer for the HP3 experiment

    The DLR HP3 experiment also includes the RAD radiometer, which is mounted on the lander platform. This determines the temperature of the Martian surface by observing its infrared radiation. The surface can reach a maximum of just over 20 degrees Celsius during the day, but can fall below minus 70 degrees Celsius at night. Knowledge of the surface temperature is important in order to be able to calculate disturbances in the temperature distribution in the subsurface. RAD was built at the DLR Institute of Optical Sensor Systems.

  • Die Namen von 2,4 Millionen Menschen reisen auf InSight mit zum Mars
    The names of 2.4 million people are travelling to Mars on InSight

    An engineer from Lockheed Martin Space, the corporation that constructed the InSight lander for NASA, places one of two silicon microchips on the Mars lander platform in a clean room. The names of 1.6 million people from all over the world have been engraved on an eight by eight millimetre area; these people registered to join the mission organised by NASA and will now take part in the almost 500-million-kilometre journey – and then remain on Mars forever. A second chip contains 800,000 additional names. NASA engineers used an electron beam to engrave them in extremely small font to accommodate the names of all the ‘passengers’. The lines are narrower than one-thousandth the width of a human hair, which themselves only have an average thickness of approximately 0.05 millimetres.

  • Exploring the interior of Mars – at present, the inner structure of Mars and the nature and size of the Martian core are not yet fully understood
  • The mission will provide new insights into how Mars' interior and rocky planets like Earth have developed and evolved
  • DLR is supplying key German technology that enables the measurement of physical parameters in remote places on Earth
  • Focus: Space, exploration

The formation of planets and the occurrence of volcanism and earthquakes are determined by the thermally driven forces acting inside a planet. Continents and life as we know it emerged on Earth. On Mars, the internal development dynamics slowed rapidly. To decipher the interior of Mars and its past in more detail, and to find out what makes Earth so unique, an Atlas launch vehicle will lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 13:05 CEST (04:05 local time) on 5 May, carrying NASA's Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander to Mars. Upon its arrival on 26 November 2018, InSight will touch down just north of the equator, on the Elysium Planitia plain, where it will commence its work as a geophysical observatory. This will be the first mission to Mars to focus on exploring the planet's interior and its 4.5-billion-year history. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is contributing one of the three principal experiments of the NASA InSight mission, HP3 – a small probe that will hammer five metres deep into the Martian soil to measure temperature and thermal conductivity at various depths to determine the heat flow from deep inside the planet. The resource-saving key technology developed by DLR has already been used in road construction in China, for agriculture in Poland and in avalanche surveillance in Switzerland.

More precise knowledge of Mars' interior and other terrastial planets

"The InSight mission fulfils the long-standing desire of planetary scientists to operate a geophysical observatory on a terrestrial planet," explains Tilman Spohn from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research and Principal Investigator of the HP3 experiment. "Mars is an ideal destination – easy to reach and comparable with Earth," Spohn continues. "The processes that played out after the formation of a metallic core at the Martian centre, its surrounding rocky mantle and the crust slowed down much earlier than on Earth." It is therefore possible that the 'fingerprints' of the events that led to the formation of an earth-like planetary core, mantle and crust have been preserved to this day. "Understanding how this occurred on Mars will enable us to acquire a far better insight into the events that unfolded on Earth up to the emergence and continued existence of life, as well as into the evolution of the Moon, Venus and Mercury. It might even allow us to learn a great deal about the formation of rocky planets around other stars – or extrasolar planets." The researchers are curious as to whether – as in Earth’s interior – a hot molten core is at the heart of Mars.

Launch from the United States West Coast

InSight was selected in August 2012 as the twelfth Discovery Mission. Like all previous missions in this NASA programme, InSight is a comparatively small mission targeted at a specific subject within planetary research. Together with the upper stage for injection into a transfer orbit, the total mission mass is just 727 kilograms, and the actual lander weighs just 360 kilograms. This makes it possible to launch the mission from the US airbase at Vandenberg, California, using an Atlas V-401 launch vehicle. It will be the first time for a planetary mission to be launched from this NASA site. The 70-metre antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network in California, Australia and Spain will be used to maintain contact with the lander on its voyage to Mars and during the mission itself.

A geophysical observatory for the Red Planet

The lander’s principal structure is a two-metre-diameter platform carrying most of the system components, namely the experiments in 'travel mode', the antennas, the thrusters, the fuel tanks and three telescopic legs. Upon arrival on Mars, a robotic arm will deploy the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) onto the surface first. The seismometer will be used to record waves propagating through the planet from marsquakes and from sites impacted by meteors. DLR is also involved scientifically in the SEIS experiment. Afterwards, in early January 2019, the HP3 experiment developed by DLR will be taken from the platform and lowered onto the Martian ground. HP3 is an abbreviation for Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package. The experiment consists of a housing – referred to as the support structure – placed on the surface of Mars that holds a 40-centimetre-long hammering probe with a diameter of 27 millimetres – nicknamed 'the Mole' by the scientists. Powered by an electric hammering mechanism, it will burrow its way centimetre by centimetre into the surface of Mars over a period of several weeks. The support structure and the 'Mole' were built by the Bremen-based DLR Institute of Space Systems in cooperation with external partners. For example, the Mole's impact mechanism was developed and built with support from Astronika and the Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences (Centrum Badań Kosmicznych; CBK), both located in Warsaw. The maximum achievable depth is five metres.

Hammering with 14,000 times gravitational acceleration

HP3 is not a 'drill' as it does not rotate. Instead, the mole advances using a special hammering mechanism in which a spring is repeatedly compressed, causing a hammer to be accelerated forward towards the inner lining of the tip of the 'Mole' each time the spring is released. These impacts generate an acceleration of up to 14,000 times that of Earth's gravity, which is why the sensitive measurement technology inside the probe requires special shock absorption techniques to withstand the stresses. For this reason, the DLR Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) used systems for impact and vibration minimisation devised by the DLR Institute of Composite Structures and Adaptive Systems in Braunschweig. A special system isolates the sensors from the impacts and in doing so minimises their exposure to stress. For this purpose, the system is fitted with specially patented double helix springs – also known as 'galaxy springs'. In addition to the vibration dampening springs in the Mole, methods for equipping the temperature sensors and feed lines on the measuring cable are technical highlights that make use of the Mole on Earth appealing for physical measurements in remote areas with scarce resources.

Temperature sensors on the science tether measure the temperature in the subsoil

At the heart of the experiment is a tether equipped with temperature sensors – developed by the DLR Institute of Planetary Research – which the Mole pulls into the Martian soil. Once the Mole has reached its final depth below the surface, the system will record ground temperature measurements for up to two years in order to determine the temperature gradient in the subsurface. The sensors are able to measure temperature differences of just a few thousandths of a kelvin (or one degree Celsius), in order to determine the very small geothermal temperature gradient. Mounted on the lander, the experiment also includes the radiometer RAD, which is designed to measure the temperature of the Martian surface. Knowledge of the surface temperature is essential to calculate disturbances in the temperature distribution in the subsurface. RAD was developed and built by the DLR Institute of Optical Sensor Systems.

The HP3 instrument on the NASA InSight mission

The InSight mission is being conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, on behalf of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. InSight is a mission in the NASA Discovery Programme. DLR is contributing the HP3 experiment to the mission. Scientific leadership lies with the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, which was also in charge of developing the experiment in collaboration with the DLR institutes of Space Systems, Optical Sensor Systems, Space Operations and Astronaut Training, Composite Structures and Adaptive Systems, System Dynamics and Control, as well as the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics. Industrial partners are Astronika and the CBK Space Research Centre, Magson GmbH and Sonaca SA. The scientific partners are the ÖAW Space Research Institute in the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the University of Kaiserslautern. The DLR Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) in Cologne is responsible for HP3 operations.

  • Using Mars as an example – how does a planetary 'heat engine' work?

    Planets can be perceived as heat engines in a way analogous to steam engines. When they formed, the planets heated up due to the impact of planetesimals on their surface. In addition, the decay of the radioactive elements like uranium, thorium and potassium generated immense heat within the rocky interior. But planets cool over time, leading to changes in their heat balance. We refer to this process as thermal evolution. Heat is transported in the interior of the planet by very slow but powerful convective movements of mantle rock. Put simply, hot rock rises like very viscous tar to the surface, while cold material sinks towards the core. We are familiar with this transport of energy through the circulation of mass, for instance, in a pot of soup on a cooker or by the lava lamps that were popular a while back. The movement of ductile hot, sometimes even molten, rock causes the formation of mountains and the emergence of volcanism on the surface. Here, the planet turns heat into mechanical work, just like a steam engine.

  • Scientific objectives and tasks of the InSight mission

    The InSight mission is designed to investigate Mars' interior structure and to analyse the processes at play underneath its surface. This is intended to provide a better understanding of the emergence and evolution of terrestrial planets. It will be achieved by:

    • determining the size, composition and condition (liquid or solid) of the core;
    • determining the thickness and structure of the Martian crust;
    • determining the composition and structure of the rocky mantle of Mars;
    • determining the heat balance of Mars’ interior.

    The mission will include analysis of the tectonic activity and meteorite impact rate on the Martian surface, and in doing so will:

    • determine the strength, frequency and geographic distribution of seismic activity in the planet's interior, and
    • measure the frequency of meteorite impacts on the Martian surface.


Last modified:
14/11/2018 10:09:27



Falk Dambowsky
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

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Prof.Dr. Tilman Spohn
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Planetary Research

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Dr Matthias Grott
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Planetary Research

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Dr Martin Knapmeyer
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Planetary Research

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Olaf Krömer
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Space Systems

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Dr Anko Börner
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Optical Sensor Systems

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Prof. Dr. Jörg Melcher
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Composite Structures and Adaptice Systems

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