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Today we look at a wide variety of topics, from the Insight mission’s increasingly humorous techniques to get its mole to burrow, to weird rocks on the Moon’s far side, to antimatter way of working just like regular matter. We are also sad to share that mathematician and orbital computer Katherine Johnson has passed away at age 101.


The NASA slogan, “Failure is not an option” sometimes leads to the most heroic and silly results. Ok… once it led to silly results… and that once is the case of the Insight Mission, and its mole burrowing tool. 

Last we saw our intrepid burrowing temperature gauge, scientists were trying to give it a helping hand, or shovel, by wedging it sideways in it’s hole. It was hoped this would increase the friction between the mole and its hole and allow it to dig down into Mars.

This did not work. So they have a new plan.

The Insight mission will now push down on the mole while it hammers.

And if you’re wondering why they didn’t try it first, the reason is actually pretty simple: If the mole succeeds in digging down, then the stationary shovel will no longer be putting any pressure on the mole. So they will need to alternate between hammering and moving the shovel, back and forth, one tiny move at a time.

And the thing is, the mole was originally designed to dig down 5 m, or about 16 ft, and measure the temperature beneath Mars’ surface as it goes. Insight’s shovel can’t push it all the way down 5 meters – all it can do is push it down to the surface. It was originally thought that through a combination of friction and an internal hammering mechanism, the mole could drive itself downward. Unfortunately, a combination of lack of friction and possibly an interfering rock have all worked to thwart this burrowing sensor. It can only be hoped that if the mole can burrow itself beneath the surface completely, maybe it will hit a better material to dig in. 

Insight, we’re watching, and we’re laughing a bit, and we wish you the best in your continued efforts to hide beneath the soils on mars.

From the surface of Mars, we now turn to the surface of the Moon where the Chang’e 4 and its Yutu-2 rover continue their exploration of the far side of the moon. Geologically, this is a very different surface that may have formed when a blob of material hit the moon. Our moon was formed when a Mars-sized object named Thea hit the proto-Earth. This collision splattered material into a cloud that over time coalesced into perhaps 3 different objects – our dense Earth, the main bulk of the moon, and a third object that splatted into what we see as the far side of the moon. Chang’e 4 and Yutu-2 are the first vehicles to explore this hemisphere in detail, and in the most recent set of images, we’re seeing what appear to be rocks that are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Scientists are saying they appear uneroded, which in the context of the moon means they are less affected by the steady rain of micrometeors than the rocks that we’re used to. This implies they are fairly fresh material unlike what we’ve seen before. Exactly what that means is still to be determined. According to Dan Moriarty, a NASA Postdoc at Goddard, these rocks could have been revealed “10-100 million years [ago] or 1-2 billion years. It’s really hard to say definitively.” At this point, we only have the low resolution teaser images. In the coming weeks we should be getting the higher resolution images that will reveal what kind of rocks these are, for instance are they made of varied minerals stuck together into a what is called a breccia, or are they more uniform in their composition, like a piece of crust material that was excavated by an asteroid impact. When those high res images and their related science come out, we will bring them to you here on the Daily Space.

Before we close out the day we have a couple news notes. The first comes to us from CERN, where physicists have constructed an anti-hydrogen atom made of a positron and antiproton. These antimatter atoms are being used to test a principal called Charge-parity-time, which says that antimatter should behave exactly like regular matter. This means that if our universe were made of majority antimatter, all the physics would work exactly the same. Working with antimatter isn’t easy – given any opportunity to interact with regular electrons and protons in regular atoms, these antimatter atoms cease to exist as the convert into other particles through a burst of energy. The folks at CERN are getting good at containment, however, and have recently determined that the energy levels of an excited anti-hydrogen atom are the same as those in a regular hydrogen atom, including having tiny differences in energy that come from different spin states as electrons transition between energy levels. This slight difference, called the Lamb shift after it’s discoverer, is small, and is the kind of subtle physics that folks at CERN are checking out one by one as they look for antimatter to behave oddly. So far – antimatter is proving totally normal, if a bit hard to work with.

Our final note of the day is one that we bring you with sadness: Today we learned that Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who calculated trajectories for so many of the early human space missions, has passed away at the age of 101. She has written an autobiography and we’re going to encourage all of you to read about the life of this black woman who managed to become a leading mathematician at a time when public school wasn’t even available in her town past grade 8. She is a role model for all of us.


And that rounds out our show for today.Thank you all for listening. The Daily Space is written by Pamela Gay, produced by Susie Murph, and is a product of the Planetary Science Institute, a 501(c)3 non profit dedicated to exploring our Solar System and beyond. We are here thanks to the generous contributions of people like you. Want to become a supporter of the show? Check us out at