NASA’s Curiosity Rover Is Testing A New Percussion Drilling Technique Today To ‘Get Its Rhythm Back’

Called Feed Extended Drilling, the new method adds a hammering force to the drill bit and could get the rover back in action.

NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover.
Triff / Shutterstock

Called Feed Extended Drilling, the new method adds a hammering force to the drill bit and could get the rover back in action.

The intrepid Curiosity rover has been trekking the Gale Crater on Mars for more than five years, meticulously photographing the Martian landscape along Vera Rubin Ridge and drilling into the planet’s surface. The rover’s camera is doing just fine and, as the Inquisitr previously reported, its latest exploits revealed Earth-like mud cracks on the crater’s floor. The robot’s drill, however, has been experiencing mechanical problems during the past couple of years.

In late 2016, the rover’s drill went out of commission after a short circuit in one of its motors, UPI notes. Since then, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, have tried to fix the problem by developing a new drilling technique called Feed Extended Drilling (FED).

This novel technique bypasses the faulty motor and allows the rover’s 7-foot-long (2 meters) robotic arm to directly maneuver and push the drill forward into the Martian surface as the drill bit spins to perforate the rocks.

The FED technique was tested this February and, although the drill failed to produce a rock sample from the Martian surface, the experiment provided a heap of data on how the method could be improved in the lab.

JPL engineers have done just that and are now preparing for another attempt to get the rover’s drill back online, NASA announced in a news release.

Since February, the JPL team has had enough time to tweak the FED drilling technique by adding percussion, or “a hammering force to the drill bit,” the space agency pointed out.

According to Space.com, the added percussion could restore the rover’s original drilling capabilities, allowing it to drill 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) into the Martian rock bed.

The innovation will be remotely tested today in an effort to help the Mars Curiosity Rover “get its rhythm back,” said NASA officials.

Steven Lee, Curiosity deputy project manager at JPL, commented on the upcoming drill test scheduled to take place later tonight.

“This is our next big test to restore drilling closer to the way it worked before.”

The new and improved FED drilling technique, demonstrated in the video below, enables the Mars Curiosity Rover to drill in a way similar to how a person might do it.

“Based on how it performs, we can fine-tune the process, trying things like increasing the amount of force we apply while drilling,” said Lee.

Fixing the rover’s drill is of paramount importance to the Curiosity mission. Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity project scientist at JPL, explains why that is.

“Every layer of Mount Sharp reveals a chapter in Mars’ history. Without the drill, our first pass through this layer was like skimming the chapter. Now we get a chance to read it in detail.”

The team is hoping that the upgraded percussion drilling technique will yield a Martian rock sample this weekend. If it does, JPL engineers are prepared to start testing a method of “delivering that sample to the rover’s internal laboratories,” NASA stated.

In anticipation of today’s test and of its successful result, the Curiosity rover reversed direction last month and started heading back to a prime drilling location. Originally moving uphill along Gale Crater’s Vera Rubin Ridge towards an area rich in clay minerals, the rover began descending to target a new location just below the ridge.

“We’ve purposely driven backwards because the team believes there’s high value in drilling a distinct kind of rock that makes up a 200-foot-thick [about 60 meters] layer below the ridge,” said Vasavada.

“We’re fortunately in a position to drive back a short way and still pick up a target on the top of this layer,” he added.