Curiosity Rover's New Drilling Method Could Transform NASA's Search for Life on Mars
Rejoice, fans of The Martian: Resourceful thinking and clever jerry-rigging on the Red Planet can indeed salvage a disaster, even when it comes to robots. Despite being about 140 million miles away from the Curiosity rover, NASA scientists have successfully tested the rover's drill for the first time since it broke using a new improvised method tested here on Earth.
If you haven't been keeping up with the latest on Curiosity, it's currently exploring Vera Rubin Ridge in the heart of Gale Crater, where it's already discovered evidence that Mars could have supported life in the past (as well as some really interesting rock formations that could point to a continued hydrological cycle).
But here's the deal: the part of the rover's apparatus that extended little stabilizers to center its drill broke back in 2016, meaning that it could still extend its drill bit, but not precisely.
In the field of extraterrestrial scientific studies, an uncontrolled drill is not ideal. Curiosity's drill has remained unused since 2016, all while researchers and technicians tried to find a solution.
The answer turned out to be pretty simple, at least in theory: press the drill against whatever surface it's drilling and use the pressure to hold the drill in place, rather than rely on extending stabilizers on either side. Seems obvious, until you realize that programming a rover to do this on its own is a minor miracle. According to the JPL's Steven Lee:
"We're now drilling on Mars more like the way you do at home. Humans are pretty good at re-centering the drill, almost without thinking about it. Programming Curiosity to do this by itself was challenging—especially when it wasn't designed to do that."
A force sensor aboard the rover helped to monitor how hard the drill was being pressed into the soil, and after the first trial run, Curiosity successfully bored a half-inch hole in the Martian surface.
Just like in The Martian, however, things get more complicated from here: because the drill is now permanently extended, the rover can't use the apparatus designed to funnel the rock powder to the two onboard labs it uses to analyze samples.
Now it has to learn how to manually sprinkle the rock powder it collects directly into those mini-labs, which are called SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) and CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralology).
Sure, all this is pretty technical, but if Matt Damon growing potatoes can be cool, then reprogramming a Martian rover on the fly is approaching rockstar levels of cool.