At the end of 2016, the drill used by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover started malfunctioning due to an apparent mechanical failure. This Saturday, NASA will test a new method that could restore the capacity of critical hammering of the drill and, consequently, the capacity of the rover to analyze samples of Martian rocks.
To drill Martian rock, the Curiosity drill uses a combination of percussive hammering with a rotating drill. At the beginning of the mission, an electrical malfunction caused problems with the hammering mechanism, but an even greater problem occurred in December 2016 when the rover's drill is powered, a mechanism that moves up and down, as a result of an unsafe brake
Since then, the space agency has tried to fix the drilling system from afar, but its engineers have not been able to restore it to its former glory. An important advance was made earlier this year with a technique called Feed Extended Drilling or FED. Unable to use the normal feeding motion to guide the drill down, NASA caused Curiosity's arm to do the job. The arm would not be leaning against the rock with the two stabilizers on each side, but at least the rotating drill could be pressed against the rock. The tests at the end of February did not show any rock samples, but showed that the drill can work without the benefit of stabilizing teeth.
In an effort to restore the full functionality of the drill, or at least get a useful state, NASA is now configured to restore the hammering skills of the drilling system, also known as percussion drilling. On May 19, Curiosity will (fortunately) drill the Martian rock using the EDF technique enabled for hammering.
"This is our next big test to restore drilling closer to the way it worked before," said Steven Lee, Curiosity deputy project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California He said in a statement. "Depending on how it works, we can fine tune the process, testing things like increasing the amount of force we apply during drilling."
Should the test work well and should the new technique produce a sample of dusty rock? You can start testing a new process to deliver that material to the rover's internal chemistry lab. These refinements will go a long way to restore the full capacity of Curiosity.
It would also be good news, given Curiosity's next destination. The rover is currently making a kind of retreat along the Vera Rubin ridge to reach an area full of clay minerals. NASA scientists want to analyze as many types of rocks as possible at Mount Sharp.
"We have intentionally backed down because the team believes there is great value in drilling a different type of rock that forms a 200-foot-thick layer [about 60 meters] below the ridge," said Curiosity project scientist Ashwin Vasavada "Fortunately, we are in a position to back up a bit and still pick up a target at the top of this layer."
To which he added: "Each layer of Mount Sharp reveals a chapter in the history of Mars, without the drill, our first step through this layer was like passing the chapter, now we have the opportunity to read it in detail."  [NASA]