Curiosity rover team test drill using robotic arm

Failure of feed mechanism late last year has forced mission team to study new drilling technologies.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Oct 25, 2017
Members of NASA's Curiosity mission team are testing a new technique to drill into Martian rock through using the rover's robotic arm.

After 15 successful drills into surface rock between 2013 and 2016 that included sample collecting, the drill's feed mechanism stopped functioning in December of last year.

During the drill sessions, stabilizing contact posts were placed on both sides of the drill bit while a motorized feed mechanism pushed the bit outward until it penetrated surface rock.

Samples of powdered rock collected during these sessions were sent to laboratory instruments within the rover for analysis.

When the drill's feed mechanism first malfunctioned, mission engineers initially attempted to repair it remotely or take the chance of using it in spite of its being unreliable.

Eventually, they instead decided to bypass the feed mechanism entirely and drill with just the robotic arm.

"We're replacing the one-axis motion of the feed mechanism with an arm that has five degrees of freedom of motion," explained Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) chief engineer for return-to-drilling Douglas Klein.

"That's not simple. It's fortunate the arm has the force/torque sensor."

Until now, that sensor was used to monitor for excessive drilling force that would trigger a daylong shutdown of the robotic arm.

While resumption of actual drilling is still several months away, the first test of the new method was conducted on Tuesday, October 17, when the drill was put to the ground for the first time in ten months, pushed slightly downward, and subjected to sideways motions.

The new technique is essentially an application of technology used for drilling on Earth. Mission engineers are also carrying out tests using a near-double of Curiosity at JPL and drilling into Earth rocks.

These tests include alternative methods of delivering powdered rock samples to laboratory instruments without use of the feed mechanism.

Curiosity is currently situated on lower Mount Sharp close to the top of a 20-story ridge, where it has been studying the amount and distribution of hematite, an iron oxide mineral.

Mission team members are optimistic about their chances of successfully drilling again.

"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," Deputy Project Manager Steve Lee of JPL said.

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