NASA Curiosity Rover: New Drilling Technique Yields First Martian Rock Sample Since 2016

FED passed this weekend’s test with flying colors, marking a momentous achievement for the Mars Curiosity mission.

Curiosity MastcamNASA / JPL

The drill on NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is back in action and could soon be restored to its former glory, the space agency announced yesterday.

The big Mars test of its new percussion drilling technique ended in a major success, with the robot snagging its first drilled sample in 18 months.

Developed by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the novel drilling technique is called Feed Extended Drilling (FED) and was tested for the first time on the Red Planet over the weekend.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, the drill on the rover’s 7-foot-long (2.1 meters) robotic arm went offline at the end of 2016, after a short circuit in one of its motors rendered the robot unable to extend the two stabilizing posts that keep the drill bit in place. The mechanical problem put a stop to the rover’s drilling activities, which make up an important part of NASA’s Curiosity mission.

JPL engineers have been working on a solution for the past year and a half, and their efforts finally paid off on May 20 when the new percussive technique enabled the rover to drill a 2-inch (50-millimeter) hole into a Martian rock and to collect its first powdered sample since the drill went out of commission.

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“The team used tremendous ingenuity to devise a new drilling technique and implement it on another planet,” Steve Lee, Curiosity deputy project manager at JPL, said in a statement.

“Those are two vital inches of innovation from 60 million miles away. We’re thrilled that the result was so successful,” he added.

According to NASA, FED’s innovation is that it allows the Mars Curiosity Rover to push down the drill on the surface of Martian rocks by directly using its robotic arm. This helps the robot keep the drill extended past the two stabilizers and makes for a more freestyle drilling, much like in the way a human hand would operate a drill.

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To make FED’s Martian debut as festive as possible, the Curiosity team had specifically chosen a new drilling site and had moved the rover downhill along Vera Rubin Ridge in the Gale Crater, the Inquisitr reported earlier this week.

The first Mars test of the FED was performed on the already famous “Duluth,” a 3-foot-long Martian rock found in the Murray Formation on the lower slopes of Mount Sharp.

Tom Green, a systems engineer who helped develop and test the FED, commented on the successful test of the new drilling technique and what it means for JPL engineers.

“We’ve been developing this new drilling technique for over a year, but our job isn’t done once a sample has been collected on Mars. With each new test, we closely examine the data to look for improvements we can make and then head back to our test bed to iterate on the process.”

Going forward, the Mars Curiosity Rover will be performing another test tomorrow, this time to analyze how the Martian sample retrieved from “Duluth” can be delivered from the drill bit into the robot’s two internal mini-laboratories.

The challenge is to uncover whether to rover can sprinkle the powder sample onto the analytical instruments inside the two high-tech labs, perhaps by using the drill’s percussion mechanism.

A new method of sample transfer is necessary because the previously used technique, in which the Mars Curiosity Rover relied on a specially designed instrument to move the rock samples from the drill bit into the labs, isn’t compatible with FED, notes Space.com.