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MacGyvering Mars: How NASA’s Curiosity Team Worked Around A Broken Drill

As of Tuesday the Curiosity rover has been on Mars for over seven years, and this week NASA shared an interactive 360-degree panorama of the planet’s Teal Ridge.

Digital Trends provides this update:

Curiosity is halfway along its path through a region called the “clay-bearing unit” because the area has a high level of clay minerals. Clay minerals are of particular interest to scientists because they form in the presence of water, suggesting that there used to be water in this location thousands of years ago… The engineers estimate that the rover still has several years of power left in its nuclear power system, and will be able to continue operating beyond that with careful power budgeting.

“This nuclear power source, by the way, means that Curiosity is better equipped to handle monster Mars dust storms, such as the one that killed NASA’s solar-powered Opportunity rover last year,” reports Space.com, sharing more highlights from the years since Curiosity’s touchdown:

[T]he rover quickly determined that the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) crater had hosted a lake-and-stream system in the ancient past. And further observations suggested that this environment was habitable for long stretches, perhaps hundreds of millions of years at a time. Curiosity has also detected several surges of methane in Gale Crater’s air…
Curiosity may well live to welcome two more rovers to the Red Planet: NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, whose design is based heavily on that of Curiosity, and the European-Russian ExoMars rover are both scheduled to touch down in February 2021.

Tablizer (Slashdot reader #95,088) shares a recent triumph that one NASA official says “represents months and months of work by our team.” When an electric motor stalled inside Curiosity’s drill, it left the rover unable to reliably extend and retract its drill bit.

With the drill feed mechanism no longer reliably working, managers decided to keep the drill bit in its extended position. That raised concerns over the stability of the drill while in use because the prong-like extensions on each side of the bit will no longer be in contact with the rock. “We had to do a big pivot in the mission thinking about how we could drill without the feed motor,” said Ashwin Vasavada, the Curiosity mission’s project scientist at JPL, in a presentation to the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group in April.

Controllers devised a way to use force applied by the robotic arm to null out forces generated by the drill, a role the arm was never designed to fill. Engineers used a replica of the Curiosity rover at JPL’s “Mars Yard” to test out the new drilling techniques, and the rover drilled a test hole in a rock on Mars in February. That test did not produce a scientifically useful rock sample — it used only the drill’s rotary mechanism, not its hammer-like percussion capability — but yielded important data for engineers to continue refining the updated drilling technique.

And thanks to this ongoing improvisation, the Curiosity mission’s project scientist says, “We now have a key sample we might have never gotten.”


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