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Curiosity rover team troubleshoots drill problem

This Dec. 2, 2016, view from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on the mast of NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover shows rocky ground within view while the rover was working at an intended drilling site called "Precipice" on lower Mount Sharp. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This Dec. 2, 2016, view from the Navigation Camera (Navcam) on the mast of NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover shows rocky ground within view while the rover was working at an intended drilling site called “Precipice” on lower Mount Sharp. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity rover is currently studying its surroundings and monitoring the Martian environment, but not driving or using its arm for science, while the rover team investigates an issue with a motor that moves the rover’s drill.

The rover is at a location on lower Mount Sharp, chosen for what was intended to be Curiosity’s seventh sample-collection drill of 2016. On Dec. 1, the rover team discovered Curiosity did not complete the commands for drilling. It encountered a fault in an early step in which the “drill feed” device mechanism did not extend the drill to touch the rock target with the drill bit.

“We are in the process of defining a set of diagnostic tests to carefully assess the drill feed mechanism. We are using our test rover here on Earth to try out these tests before we run them on Mars,” said Curiosity’s Deputy Project Manager Steven Lee at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “To be cautious, until we run the tests on Curiosity, we want to restrict any dynamic changes that could affect the diagnosis. That means not moving the arm and not driving, which could shake it.”

Two possible causes being assessed are that a brake on the drill feed mechanism did not fully disengage or that an electronic encoder for the mechanism’s motor did not function properly. Workarounds for both possibilities may exist, but Lee said the first step is to identify why the motor did not work properly.

Curiosity has driven 9.33 miles (15.01 kilometers) since landing inside Gale Crater in August 2012. The rover has traveled over half a mile (more than 840 meters) since leaving a region of scenic mesas and buttes named “Murray Buttes” in September 2016. Curiosity has climbed 541 feet (165 meters) in elevation from its landing site, including 144 feet (44 meters) since leaving Murray Buttes.

Curiosity’s path up Mount Sharp is taking it to progressively higher and younger layers to investigate how the region’s ancient climate changed over billions of years. During its first year on Mars, the mission discovered evidence the region once offered conditions favorable for microbial life. The mission is also monitoring the modern environment of the Red Planet, including natural radiation levels.

On the 15 rock targets drilled so far, Curiosity’s drill has used a combination of hammering and rotating action to penetrate the targets and collect sample material. The most recent drilling attempt was planned to be the first use of a non-percussive drilling method using only the drill’s rotary action. Short circuits of the percussion mechanism have occurred intermittently and predictably several times since first seen in February 2015.

“We still have percussion available, but we would like to be cautious and use it for targets where we really need it, and otherwise use rotary-only where that can give us a sample,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada at JPL.

Video courtesy of NASA / JPL



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.

Reader Comments

That vibration is tough on wire insulation. With that, and the extremes of heat and cold on Mars, a lot of stuff can come loose which wouldn’t happen on Earth.
I might have gone with some kind of diamond drill bit. They might get it working again.

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