NASA Is Fixing Broken Mars Probe By Hitting It With Shovel

by : Emily Brown on : 20 Mar 2020 16:46
NASA Fix Broken Mars Probe By Hitting It With ShovelNASA InSight/Twitter

NASA, the space agency which credits itself with pioneering the future in space exploration and scientific discovery, managed to fix a broken Mars probe by hitting it with the space-worthy equivalent of a shovel. 

Sure, there’s all sorts of complicated and time-consuming ways to fix technology, but there’s no shame in resorting back to the tried and tested methods.


Who hasn’t attempted to fix an unresponsive remote by whacking it against your hand, or given a crackly radio a smack in an effort to get a better quality sound? No matter how simple a solution it may be, it’s still a solution, and if turning it off and on again or breaking out the old Ctrl+Alt+Del doesn’t work, then giving it a quick thump is the next best option.

Life on MarsPixabay

NASA found itself in a sticky situation last year with its Insight lander, which is intended to study Mars’ interior structure to answer key questions about the early formation of the rocky planet.

Insight is equipped with a 15-inch digging probe, dubbed ‘the mole’, which was supposed to bury itself under the surface of the red planet and measure its temperature.


However, the mole found itself stuck on February 28, 2019, and scientists determined it was because Insight landed in an area with an ‘unusually thick duricrust’, or a layer of cemented soil, which NASA says is different to what has been encountered on other parts of Mars.

The mole was met with a lack of friction from the soil, and without it the recoil from its self-hammering action caused it to simply bounce in place.

Scientists searched for a solution and attempted a technique called ‘pinning’ using Insight’s shovel-like scoop, which added friction to help the mole dig. However, the probe popped back out of the soil on two occasions, so the scientists decided to change tack.


After several months, the NASA InSight Twitter account shared a post to announce its new strategy, which it described as ‘giving [the mole] a push with [Insight’s] robotic arm while it hammers.’

The team decided to use the scoop on the end of Insight’s arm to press on the top of the mole, also called its back cap. Or, in simpler terms, they used what is effectively a shovel to hit the mole as it digs into the ground. And guess what? It seems to be working!


NASA shared an update last week, writing:

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.

Hopefully the method will continue to prove successful over the coming weeks, and the mole can get on with measuring heat under the surface of the planet.


NASA’s approval of the ‘just give it a whack’ method has made me feel a lot better about the way I go about fixing my TV remote. It’s not aggressive, it’s science.

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: Science, Mars, NASA, Space, universe


NASA and 1 other
  1. NASA

    Mars InSight Lander to Push on Top of the 'Mole'

  2. NASA InSight/Twitter