NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has been on a drilling hiatus for more than a year but it is now able to drill samples in rocks at the Red Planet's Gale Crater again.

Crucial Capability To Study Mars

Electrical issues have caused problems with the rover's hammering mechanism. However, the problem became worse when its drill broke down in December 2016, which prevented the drill from moving up and down.

The ability to drill into Martian rocks is an important capability for Curiosity to study planet Mars. Samples that the rover drilled earlier led to the discovery of a freshwater lake and groundwater system on the Red Planet that would have been habitable.

Feed Extended Drilling

The malfunction prompted the Curiosity team on Earth to come up with a new drilling method that can overcome the mechanical problems.

The team was able to test the new technique over the weekend and was able to drill about 2 inches into a rock nicknamed "Duluth". For the first time since late 2016 when its motor stopped working, the rover has bored into a Martian rock.

"If all goes well and we can continue drilling, the science team hopes to learn how the ancient climate at Gale crater, and the prospects for life there, changed over time," said Curiosity Rover's project scientist Ashwin Vasavada.

The technique, called "Feed Extended Drilling" or FED, uses the force of the rover's robotic arm to push the drill forward as the latter spins, much like how humans would drill into a wall at home.

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

Next Challenge For Curiosity Team

The next challenge for the Curiosity team will be to fine-tune the new process and deliver the rock powder to the rover's built-in laboratories for analysis. Inside the rover are two laboratories that can conduct a chemical and mineralogical analysis of soil and rock samples.

The team plans to test a new method for the delivery of rock samples later this week.

"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," said JPL's Tom Green, who helped develop the new drilling method. "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."

ⓒ 2021 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.