Upcoming tests will help engineers refine new drilling technique for Curiosity rover

Enhanced percussion technique could restore full drilling capabilities.
By Laurel Kornfeld | May 18, 2018
On Saturday night, May 19, engineers on NASA's Curiosity team plan to test a new drilling technique that could enable the rover to resume its full drilling capacity on Mars for the first time since experiencing a mechanical problem in 2016.

Known as Feed Extended Drilling or FED, this technique uses Curiosity's robotic arm to push the spinning drill bit. FED was initially tested in February, but the latest version enhances the technique by adding a percussion or hammering force.

When tested without the percussion three months ago, the technique yielded important data subsequently used by engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which runs the mission, but was unable to produce rock samples.

Saturday's testing is designed to help engineers refine the percussion technique over the next few months. If the test yields a rock sample, Curiosity's engineering team will proceed to test a new method of delivering that sample to the rover's laboratories.

"This is our next big test to restore drilling closer to the way it worked before. Based on how it performs, we can fine-tune the process, trying things like increasing the amount of force we apply while drilling," explained Curiosity deputy project manager Steven Lee of JPL.

For several months, Curiosity has been driving uphill on Mount Sharp along a band of rocks known as Vera Rubin Ridge to explore a region rich in clay minerals.

However, in mid-April, the rover reversed course, heading downward toward an area with a specific type of rock that scientists want to analyze.

"We've purposely driven backward because the team believes there is a high value in drilling a distinct kind of rock that makes up a 200-foot-thick [about 60 meters] layer below the ridge," noted Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, also of JPL.

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

Ultimately, the rover team hopes to analyze samples of all major rock types along Curiosity's path using its internal laboratories.



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