NASA’s Curiosity rover has conducted the first test of a new drilling technique on Mars since its drill stopped working. 

The Martian rover drilled into a red planet rock for the first time since 2016. Curiosity dug a hole about 0.5 inches (1.3 centimeters) deep into a Martian rock on Monday (Feb. 26).

This was just the first in what will be a series of tests to determine how well the new drill method can collect samples. NASA calls the new technique jury-rigged drilling.

The car-size rover’s drill is a key tool at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm. It allows it to snag pristine samples from the interiors of ancient rocks. The tool has been out of commission since late 2016. That’s because a motor that extends two stabilizing posts on either side of the drill bit conked out.

Fixing the Drilling Instrument

Engineers have been working for the past 15 months to fix the drilling. Their new strategy involves extending the bit out beyond the stabilizers and carefully pushing it against a rock using Curiosity’s arm. The rover can keep the drill bit centered using a force sensor, mission team members said.

“We are now drilling on Mars more like the way you do at home,” said Steven Lee, deputy project manager at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “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 was not designed to do that,” said Lee.

This hole at Lake Orcadie provides the first insights into how this operation will work in the Martian environment.

The rover is using its entire arm to push the drill forward, re-centering itself while taking measurements with a force sensor. Originally, NASA included that sensor to stop the rover’s arm if it received a high-force jolt.

It now offers Curiosity a vital sense of touch. Thus, preventing the drill bit from drifting sideways too much and getting stuck in the rock.

However, the drill is not back in operational mode yet.

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Thumbnail image: NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used a new drill method to produce a hole on February 26 in a target named Lake Orcadie. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS