After 10 months of waiting, Mars Curiosity Rover is ready to drill rocks. Last week, NASA did a careful test run with the Curiosity rover’s drill, using a new technique.
Curiosity didn’t do any drilling because 10 months ago the drilling instrument broke. The drill had stopped functioning properly just as the Curiosity team was preparing to examine organics on Mars.
Now, NASA is about to fix it. However, the space agency warned about a delay in drilling rocks. The delay will persist for at least a few more months as the technique is refined.
In the new technique, NASA is using Curiosity’s 7-foot-long (2.1 meters) robotic arm to push the extended drill bit into rock, without the aid of two stabilizing posts.
A hole at ‘Telegraph Peak’ Drilled by Mars Rover Curiosity. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Curiosity rover has been exploring the Gale Crater since the probe’s August 2012 landing. Drilling analyses have allowed the rover team to determine that the crater could have supported microbial life in the ancient past.
Organic molecules, in some cases, are indications of life.
NASA designed the Curiosity to look for habitable environments. In the other hand, another Martian rover is set to launch in three years, in 2020. The successor rover will cache samples with evidence of past life.
Scientists are eager to find how habitable the planet was in the ancient past, particularly when water flowed on the Martian surface.
What was the problem with the drilling instruments?
The rover’s arm used stabilizers (two contact posts) that the rover placed on the target rock before drilling the rock. But a mechanical problem deep in the drill prevented the stabilizers form being reliably deployed late last year.
During the Oct. 17 test, Curiosity pushed the extended drill bit against a Martian rock, then exerted some side-to-side force, measuring everything with an onboard force sensor.
“This is the first time we’ve ever placed the drill bit directly on a Martian rock without stabilizers,” Douglas Klein, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.
The drill on Mars was disabled. Here on Earth, NASA engineers spent several months testing new ways to make the instrument work again on Mars. A near-twin of Curiosity underwent testing there to come up with a new way to get the work done.
The team operating NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is developing techniques that the rover might be able to use to resume drilling into rocks on Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Besides changing the drilling procedure, Curiosity’s managers are also looking at ways to deliver samples to the rover’s deck without using the drill feed mechanism.