NASA hopes that Curiosity rover's drill, which has been out of service since 2016, can return to functionality thanks to a potential new fix.
What Happened To Curiosity?
In 2012, NASA's Mars Curiosity rover arrived on Mars to study the planet's climate and geology. The rover was working just fine until 2016 when the drill stopped working because of a mechanical failure with the brake.
This incident in 2016 wasn't the first time that Curiosity experienced an issue. The hammering mechanism deteriorated within the first year of its mission. However, this second malfunction was bigger because it impacted the up and down motions. Without that working, the drill was not functional.
Testing Out The New Technique For The Drill
On May 19, NASA will test a new technique for the drill called Feed Extended Drill, or FED. This method relies on Curiosity's arm to be more active in the process so that the rotating drill can be pressed into rocks. The tests will be conducted on Mars on the actual rover.
NASA scientists are hopeful that this test will result in the restoration of Curiosity's drilling capabilities. If it does work, then Curiosity can continue to locate rock samples on Mars and analyze them.
In February 2018, NASA tested the FED technique on Curiosity. The tests failed to produce a quality rock sample. However, the test allowed researchers to determine what could be improved on the rover. After studying the data, researchers decided to add percussive drilling into the FED technique, which will hopefully allow Curiosity to get the job done.
"This is our next big test to restore drilling closer to the way it worked before," said Steven Lee, Curiosity deputy project manager. "Based on how it performs, we can fine-tune the process, trying things like increasing the amount of force we apply while drilling."
Future Implications Of The Drilling Test
If the May 19 tests are successful, then NASA can begin to restore Curiosity's full capacity. Researchers are already prepared for the next step in the process, which will involve moving the samples into Curiosity's internal laboratories without spilling them.
Even if the tests are not successful, researchers are working on ways to improve the drill's technique and performance. NASA wants Curiosity to continue to play a big role in gathering knowledge about Mars.
"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," said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada.