NASA Finds a Solution for Repairing the Curiosity Rover's Busted Drill on Mars

Saturday, 19 May 2018 - 6:36PM
Space
Mars
NASA
Saturday, 19 May 2018 - 6:36PM
NASA Finds a Solution for Repairing the Curiosity Rover's Busted Drill on Mars
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NASA/JPL-Caltech
While Curiosity has been an effective Mars rover, both in what it's discovered and how it's become the anthropomorphized public face of NASA's Mars missions, it's journey has hit some bumps.

Back in 2016, an odd technical glitch caused Curiosity's drill to break down, and it never completely recovered. NASA engineers have been experimenting with possible fixes, but it's more complicated when the hardware is on another planet and you can't do much besides transmit more software. But they may finally have a fix ready to go.

Perhaps it's more of a workaround than a true fix, but the results should ideally be the same: Curiosity will soon add some "percussion" to its drilling process with a new method called Feed Extended Drilling (FED), which involves the rover using its robotic arm to push down on the drill with a hammering force while the drill bit works. 

In a way, it's closer to how a human might drill, although it's not how Curiosity - with it's 7 foot (2 meter) long robotic arm - is supposed to.




A previous version of this method without the added hammering was tested back in February, ending unsuccessfully after Curiosity still couldn't take a rock sample. The new test will happen later this weekend, and NASA will soon know whether they can finally allow their rover to start digging again, or whether it's back to the drawing board.

According to Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who said the following in an official statement from the space agency: 

Opening quote
"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. We're fortunately in a position to drive back a short way and still pick up a target on the top of this layer."
Closing quote


Of all things to break, losing the drill is far from the worst case scenario, but it was unfortunate. We still know very little about what happens underneath the surface of the Red Planet, and while Curiosity wouldn't be drilling especially deep while it patrols Mount Sharp - its drill can dig just 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) - it could let us do a little more than simply skim the surface of the planet.

Later this year, NASA's stationary InSight lander will touch down on Mars after it successfully launched at the beginning of this month (it's a long trip between Earth and Mars), and it will be able to study Mars' inner workings and seismic activity in more depth. But it's also stuck in one spot, so having a working mobile drill would be great.

And even beyond that, Curiosity is a likable enough rover that it'll be nice to see it back at 100 percent again.

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