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NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is driving again, drill is still out of action

MastCam image of 'Old Soaker', one of several potential rock targets at the Curiosity Mars rovers current location. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

MastCam image of “Old Soaker”, one of several potential rock targets at the Curiosity Mars rover’s current location. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover drove a short distance on Sunday, December 18, moving about 33 feet (about 10 meters) from the spot where the rover had been stopped for over two weeks. On December 1, Curiosity was unable to complete drilling commands at a site called “Precipice” on lower Mount Sharp. A fault occurred in an early step in the “drill feed” mechanism that did not extend the drill to touch the rock target with the bit. 

Ashwin Vasadava, Curiosity’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, told Spaceflight Now that the mission team believes that this issue has been traced to a brake on the drill feed mechanism, which is supposed to place the drill bit on the surface of the rock started selected for drilling.

“You press against the surface to keep the drill in place, and then a mechanism moves the actual drill up and down to do the drilling,” Vasavada said in a press conference on Dec. 13 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). “That’s called the drill feed. That mechanism exhibited a stall … and since then we’ve been running activities on the rover to diagnose that issue.”

The Curiosity rover team has had some success in unstalling the drill feed, but the problem was found to be recurring.

“It went away and we were very excited, but then it unfortunately has returned again in just the last day or so,” Vasavada told reporters. “We’re in the process of still figuring out how to go recover the operation of that drill feed.”

Curiosity's rock or soil sampling sites on Mars, through November 2016.

Curiosity’s rock or soil sampling sites on Mars, through November 2016. The diameter of each drill hole is about 0.6 inch (1.6 centimeters), slightly smaller than a U.S. dime. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Since arriving at its new location, Curiosity has used its laser-firing ChemCam instrument to analyze four rock targets: “Somes Sound”, “Schoodic Peninsula”, “South Bubble”, and “Schooner Head”. The rover is also using its MastCam to study the red and gray color variations of Schooner Head and “Old Soaker”. While the mission team will take a break for the holidays, the rover will continue to monitor environmental conditions on Mars. Normal operations will resume on January 3.

During 2016, the rover has drilled 6 holes, driven about 1.86 miles (3 kilometers), and climbed approximately 279 feet (85 meters). As the rover drove the flanks of Mount Sharp, it encountered diverse terrain ranging from the wind-sculpted sand ripples of “Bagnold Dunes” to the spectacular layered buttes and flat-topped mesas of “Murray Buttes“.

The Curiosity team celebrated the rover’s fourth anniversary on Mars in August and the mission began a two-year extension on October 1. During the recent AGU fall meeting, scientists announced the discovery of boron on Mars, and further evidence that ancient conditions on Mars would have been habitable for microbial life.

Video courtesy of NASA/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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