Update: Curiosity rover successfully drills hole in ‘Duluth’
NASA’s Curiosity rover has successfully tested a new method of drilling rocks on Mars. On Sunday, May 20, the rover drilled a hole about 2 inches (50 millimeters) into a target rock named “Duluth.” It was the first rock sample acquired by Curiosity in more than a year.
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California have been testing and refining a new drilling technique since Curiosity’s drill experienced a mechanical problem in December of 2016.
The new technique, called Feed Extended Drilling (FED), keeps the drill’s bit extended past two stabilizer posts designed to hold the drill steady against rock targets. This method allows Curiosity to push the drill bit forward as it spins. The newest version of FED adds a hammering force to the drill bit.
“The team used tremendous ingenuity to devise a new drilling technique and implement it on another planet,” said Curiosity Deputy Project Manager Steve Lee of JPL. “Those are two vital inches of innovation from 60 million miles away. We’re thrilled that the result was so successful.”
Drilling is a crucial part of Curiosity’s mission of exploring Mars. The rover has two internal science laboratories that can perform chemical and mineralogical analyses of rock and soil samples.
The mission’s science team had been hoping to resume drilling before Curiosity left it’s current location near Vera Rubin Ridge. The rover drove back down the ridge to drill a rock sample from Duluth. The rover will resume driving towards an uphill area containing clay materials that the team is eager to explore once its science activities at Duluth are completed.
While successfully demonstrating that the new drilling technique works in an important achievement, the mission team’s isn’t done yet. The engineers will continue to tweak the extended drilling technique while simultaneously developing new ways to improve the drill’s performance.
“We’ve been developing this new drilling technique for over a year, but our job isn’t done once a sample has been collected on Mars,” said JPL’s Tom Green, a systems engineer who helped develop and test Curiosity’s new drilling method. “With each new test, we closely examine the data to look for improvements we can make and then head back to our test bed to iterate on the process.”
Curiosity’s next task will be delivering the rock sample from the drill bit to the rover’s internal science laboratories. The mission team will use Curiosity’s cameras to estimate how much rock powder trickles out while running the drill backwards. The drill’s percussive mechanism will also be used to tap out powder.
Video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech
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.