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NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover tests new drilling method

A test of a new percussive drilling technique at NASA's JPL. Later this week, NASA's Curiosity rover will test percussive drilling on Mars for the first time since December 2016. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A test of a new percussive drilling technique at NASA’s JPL. Later this week, NASA’s Curiosity rover will test percussive drilling on Mars for the first time since December 2016. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover may soon be back to drilling rocks on the Red Planet. Engineers with the rover team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have been working for the past year to restore the rover’s full drilling capabilities, which were hampered by a mechanical problem in 2016.

An image of Curiosity's next drilling target. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the rover will drill into a "complexly-layered" rock dubbed "Duluth." Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

An image of Curiosity’s next drilling target. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the rover will drill into a “complexly-layered” rock dubbed “Duluth.” Photo Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

On May 18, 2018, the team added percussion to a drilling method already in use on Mars, NASA said. The new method is called Feed Extended Drilling (FED). The U.S. space agency said the technique allows Curiosity to drill by using the force of its robotic arm to push its drill bit forward as it spins. The updated version will add a hammering force to the drill bit.

FED was tested without percussion at the end of Feburary, While the test did not successfully produce a rock sample, it did produce valuable data for the engineers at JPL. Data from the percussive tests will help the team refine the drilling technique over the next few months.

“This is our next big test to restore drilling closer to the way it worked before,” Steven Lee, Curiosity deputy project manager at JPL, said in a NASA news release. “Based on how it performs, we can fine-tune the process, trying things like increasing the amount of force we apply while drilling.”

NASA said the mission team’s strategy has been to prototype new methods on the go. If the most recent test successfully acquired a rock sample, engineers would immediately begin testing a new method for delivering the sample to the rover’s internal science instruments, As the team continues to tweak the drilling method, they will also develop new ways to improve the drill’s efficiency.

If the test successfully acquires a rock sample, NASA said it could contribute significantly to the rover’s science mission. Curiosity had been making is way uphill along Vera Rubin Ridge toward an area containing clay minerals that researchers are eager to explore. Controllers on Earth commanded the rover to reverse direction in mid-April in order to acquire samples from a unique rocket target.

“We’ve purposely driven backwards because the team believes there’s high value in drilling a distinct kind of rock that makes up a 200-foot-thick [about 60 meters] layer below the ridge,” Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL said in a news release. “We’re fortunately in a position to drive back a short way and still pick up a target on the top of this layer.”

The rock target, dubbed Duluth by the mission team, could fill a gap in scientific knowledge about the Red Planet. The team would like to analyze a sample of all of the different rock types Curiosity encounters on its way up Mount Sharp.

“Every layer of Mount Sharp reveals a chapter in Mars’ history,” Vasavada said. “Without the drill, our first pass through this layer was like skimming the chapter. Now we get a chance to read it in detail.”

Video courtesy of JPL

 

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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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