Curiosity rover closer to resuming drilling on Mars thanks to testing of new techniques

Photo of Curiosity’s drill at the end of its robotic arm, during the latest test on Oct. 17, 2017. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity rover has been exploring Mars since 2012, analyzing numerous samples of rock and soil in Gale crater, which used to be a large lake a few billion years ago. Almost a year ago though, the rover’s drill stopped working properly and engineers have been busy figuring out how to fix it if possible. But it seems that they are now getting closer to resuming drilling, which is great news, especially since one of the main tasks is to study organic material the rover has found.

The rover team has been testing some new techniques back on Earth, and are optimistic that the problem can be resolved, although full operation of the drill is probably still a few months away. Meanwhile, there are plenty of other activities can keep Curiosity busy as well.

“We’re steadily proceeding with due caution to develop and test ways of using the rover differently from ever before, and Curiosity is continuing productive investigations that don’t require drilling,” said Deputy Project Manager Steve Lee, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

It’s been 10 months since Curiosity even touched the ground with its drill, but it did so for the first time again on Oct. 17. It also placed the drill directly on a rock without using its stabilizers, on either side of the bit, something never done before.

The 15 drill sites so far in Gale crater. It has been nearly a year since Curiosity was last able to do drilling. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Mudstone lakebed sedimentary deposits seen by the Curiosity rover in Gale crater. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
“Self-portrait” of Curiosity beside the Bagnold Dunes. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“This is the first time we’ve ever placed the drill bit directly on a Martian rock without stabilizers,” said JPL’s Douglas Klein, chief engineer for the mission’s return-to-drilling development. “The test is to gain better understanding of how the force/torque sensor on the arm provides information about side forces.”

In December 2016, the feed mechanism of the drill began to malfunction, halting drilling activities. The plan now is to use the motion of the robotic arm to directly advance the extended bit into a rock.

“We’re replacing the one-axis motion of the feed mechanism with an arm that has five degrees of freedom of motion,” Klein said. “That’s not simple. It’s fortunate the arm has the force/torque sensor.”

“The development work and testing here at JPL has been promising,” Lee added. “The next step is to assess the force/torque sensor on Mars. We’ve made tremendous progress in developing feed-extended drilling, using the rover’s versatile capabilities beyond the original design concepts. While there are still uncertainties that may complicate attempts to drill on Mars again, we are optimistic.”

The view from the top of Vera Rubin Ridge on sol 1850, the current location of the rover. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Recent image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on Curiosity (sol 1816). While the drill has been out of commission, other instruments are still busy at work. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Before the technical difficulties started, Curiosity had used its drill 15 times to obtain samples from various types of rocks.

Scientists are anxious for the drill to be used again, particularly since some of the previous samples contained organic material. These were mostly simpler organics, but there were hints of more complex ones as well. In order to further analyze them, however, more samples are needed, from more locations. Organics themselves are not proof of life, but they are the building blocks of life and sometimes can be the leftover remnants of previous life. More detailed analysis of these organic compounds would help scientists better determine their origin, even though Curiosity was not designed to look for life itself.

Right now, Curiosity is on Vera Rubin Ridge, which is 20-stories tall, near the base of Mount Sharp. The rover has found compelling evidence that the region was much more habitable in the distant past than it is now, with lakes, streams and more abundant oxygen, but whether it was ever actually inhabited by any microbes is still unknown. Most recently, Curiosity found evidence for ancient hydrothermal activity.

This article was first published on AmericaSpace.





Blog update: new email updates service

I have also just updated the email updates for the blog, using MailChimp. Cleaner format, and you can also now subscribe from below the content of a blog post, in the sidebar or through an occasional pop-up. All current subscribers have been transferred to the new format already, so you don’t need to do anything. For this post, you might get both the old one and the new one today. If you do happen to get a copy of the old email as well still (for posts after this one), then you can just unsubscribe from that one. If you don’t get the new one, check your junk email folder and add my email address to your contacts ( With this, the emails are setup to go out at the same time each day, but only on days when there is a new blog post (this post serves as a first test, for 7:00 PM PT). There is also the ability to send emails other than just blog posts, if needed and other options. Thanks!

Read More…

NASA’s Opportunity rover celebrates 13 amazing years on Mars

Opportunity looks back at its landing spot within Eagle crater, after leaving tracks behind in the soil. This is where the rover began its journey 13 years ago. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thirteen years. That is how long NASA’s Opportunity rover has now been exploring Meridiani Planum on Mars; not bad for a robot which was designed with a hoped-for nominal 90-day mission. Today marks the 13th anniversary of the landing of Opportunity, on Jan. 24, 2004 PST (Jan. 25, 2004 UTC). The mission since then has been nothing short of incredible, as Opportunity soon found evidence that Meridiani Planum used to be a much wetter place than it is now. It was a place where microbial life could have existed; whether it actually did or not is still unknown but Opportunity continues to provide more clues as it continues exploring vast sandy plains and mountainous crater rims.

Read More…

Science fiction no more: humans and robots to explore space together

Head shot of NASA's Robonaut. Kennedy Space Center can be seen reflected in the visor. Credit: NASA/JPL/Joe Bibby

When you hear about robots and space exploration, the first thing many people may think of is R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars. While we may not be quite there yet, robots have become a major, even necessary, part of space missions. The many probes, landers and rovers that have been sent throughout the solar system are essentially robots, which have become more advanced over time. Then there’s the new Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed to assist astronauts with a variety of tasks in space including on the International Space Station, for example. But what is next? That was the subject of a panel discussion last Tuesday at the Von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. The future being planned by the robotics experts involved is one of both humans and robots working together in space. The future is now…

See Universe Today for the full article.

Spaceport America Opens With ‘Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space’

Do you want to buy a ticket to outer space? Fly into orbit for the most breathtaking views of Earth possible? Well, those dreams for many took a step closer to reality yesterday as the world’s first commercial spaceport officially opened with dedication ceremonies for the new home of Virgin Galactic, Spaceport America, in New Mexico. It’s the beginning of a whole new space age…

See Universe Today for the full article.