Curiosity Mars Rover Tests New Drilling Technique But More Testing Needed

NASA’s Curiosity rover raised robotic arm with
drill pointed skyward while exploring Vera Rubin Ridge – backdropped by the
base of Mount Sharp inside Gale Crater. This navcam camera mosaic was stitched
from raw images taken on Sol 1912, Dec. 22, 2017 and colorized. Credit:
NASA/JPL/Ken Kremer/ Di Lorenzo

Ken Kremer     22 Mar 2018

the first time in more than a year, NASA’s
Mars Curiosity rover carried out the first tests of a new
drilling technique on Red Planet rock since its drill stopped working reliably in December 2016. 

the rover succeeding a drilling to a shallow depth, the results demonstrated
that  more testing will be needed because
the hole was not deep enough to collect a sample.

the drill bit and two stabilizers illustrated in our lead mosaic created by the
imaging team of Ken Kremer & Marco Di Lorenzo – backdropped by Mount Sharp
on Mars.

Engineers programmed Curiosity to conduct the initial drill test on
Feb. 26 at a target called ‘Lake Orcadie’ at the six-wheeled robots current location on Vera
Rubin Ridge.  

“The action produced a hole about a half-inch (1-centimeter)
deep — not enough for a full scientific sample, but enough to validate that
the new method works mechanically,” NASA announced.

“This was just the first in what will be a series of tests to
determine how well the new drill method can collect samples. If this drill had
achieved sufficient depth to collect a sample, the team would have begun
testing a new sample delivery process, ultimately delivering to instruments
inside the rover.”

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used a new drill method to produce a
hole on February 26, 2018 in a target named Lake Orcadie. The hole marks the
first operation of the rover’s drill since a motor problem began acting up more
than a year ago.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Normally the boring drills about 2.5 inches (5 cm)  into the Red Planet.

So the ‘Lake Orcadie’ test campaign of the new technique cored far less
into Mars and was not enough to collect a useable sample for analysis by the
rovers miniaturized pair of Chemistry lab instruments:
Sample Analysis at
Mars, or SAM, and Chemistry and Mineralogy, or CheMin.

Curiosity has drilled into Martian rocks 15 times so far
since landing on Mars on Aug. 6, 2012 inside Gale Crater, but not at all in the
past 14 months. 

Since December 2016 a faulty motor in the
drill has prevented the robots drill bit from extending and retracting normally.

The bit is located between the two finger-like
stabilizers that are used to steady it against the rocket targets.
  See out lead mosaic from Sol 1912 showing the
drill bit and stabilizers backdropped by Mount Sharp.

The engineering team had to devise a workaround to keep the
drill bit permanently extended out far enough past the stabilizers to drill
deep enough into rocket to collect a usable amount of pulverized samples to
deliver to the two chemistry labs – something it was not designed to do. 

So they had to hack the software to use the drill without
any interaction from the stabilizers.  

took many months of effort to devise a software solution and then test it on
the nearly identical rover in the Mars yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
in Pasadena, CA.

The new method is what the team describes as ‘freehand’ and
is a lot like how we humans use a hand drill here on Earth. The old method is
more like using a drill press.  

“We’re now drilling on Mars more like the way you do at
home,” said Steven Lee, deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “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

Watch this NASA JPL video showing and describing the new
drilling technique.

Video Caption: After more than a
year without the use of the Curiosity Mars rover’s drill, engineers have
devised a workaround and tested it for the first time on the Red Planet. More
testing of the drill method is planned for the future.   Credit: NASA/JPL

An unfortunate byproduct
of implementing the new freehand drill technique with the extended drill bit is
that the rover can no longer use the hand mounted CHIMRA  (Collection and
Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis)
mechanism that sieves, portions and delivers the rock powder to the
rover’s instruments

“JPL also had to invent a new way to deposit the powder without
this device. The new solution makes Curiosity look as though it is adding
seasoning to its science, shaking out grains from the drill’s bit as if it were
tapping salt from a shaker,” the MSL team said.

“This tapping has been successfully tested here on Earth — but
Earth’s atmosphere and gravity are very different from that of Mars. Whether
rock powder on Mars will fall out in the same volume and in a controlled way
has yet to be seen.”

The next step was
to try a full depth drill with the new technique.

Curiosity Mars rover snaps a dramatic selfie at the ‘Torridon’ quadrangle while
making long stretches of wheel tracks exploring assorted rock layers, bedrock
outcrops and mineral exposures around Vera Rubin Ridge with an exquisitely
sharp view of the distant rim of the Gale Crater landing site visible in the
background on the Red Planet.  This
navcam camera mosaic was stitched and colorized by Ken Kremer and Marco Di
Lorenzo using raw images taken on Sol 1896, Dec. 6, 2017.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Ken
Kremer/ Di Lorenzo/

As of today, Sol 1999, March 22, 2018, Curiosity has driven
over 11.6 miles (18.7 kilometers)
since its August 2012 landing inside
Gale Crater from the landing site to the ridge, and taken over 470,000 amazing

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA, SpaceX,
ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and more
space and mission
reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force
Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing
Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news:
– – twitter @ken_kremer –
ken at

Ken Kremer

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of NASA, SpaceX, ULA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and more space and mission reports direct from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news. Dr. Kremer is a research scientist and journalist based in the KSC area, active in outreach and interviewed regularly on TV and radio about space topics. Ken’s photos are for sale and he is available for lectures and outreach events.

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