Good news, space enthusiasts: the Mars Curiosity Rover is drilling holes in the Red Planet once again following a major hiccup in late 2016 where the motors used to extend the drill past its two stabilizers suddenly stopped working.
Since then, the Curiosity team back on Earth has been trying to work on a solution — and it may have finally found one.
New Drilling Method For The Curiosity Rover
The team had to accept that because of the snag, they would no longer be able to use the stabilizers. Curiosity now pushes the drill down with its arm and monitors the progress with the help of an onboard force sensor to keep the drill from swaying out of place or getting stuck. As there's less precision because of the absence of the stabilizers, NASA calls the new drilling method "more freehand."
It works. The new method successfully drilled a hole on Feb. 26 on the Martian surface, in a target named Lake Orcadie. Curiosity was able to drill slight more than a centimeter deep.
"We're now drilling on Mars more like the way you do at home," said Steven Lee, JPL's deputy project manager for Curiosity. "Humans are pretty good at re-centering the drill, almost without thinking about it. Programming Curiosity to do this by itself was challenging — especially when it wasn't designed to do that."
Not Operational Yet
While the initial test was successful, the drill hasn't been put back in operation mode yet. The hole made via the new drilling method wasn't enough to acquire a full scientific sample of the planet's rocks but enough to confirm that the new method is actually a functional alternative. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says more tests are scheduled soon to determine how well the new method can be used to collect Martian surface samples.
Speaking of collecting, Curiosity will also have to collect samples in a new way moving forward. Because the drill is permanently extended, the rover won't be able to use an onboard instrument that delivers rock powder to two laboratories, Sample Analysis at Mars and Chemistry and Mineralogy. Instead, the rover will sprinkle rock powder from the drill bit into the laboratories, according to NASA.
Curiosity is currently roaming around a landform called Vera Rubin Ridge. Its drill has been used 15 times to gather samples, with the last collection occurring in late 2016, when the mishap happened. Hopefully, the new drilling method proves functional enough to collect more samples from the Red Planet.