NASA’s Curiosity Explorer aims to regain its rhythm

A test of a new percussion drilling technique at NASA's JPL. Later this week, NASA's Curiosity rover will test percussion drilling on Mars for the first time since December 2016. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA's Curiosity rover could soon re-drill rocks on Mars.

Engineers have been working for the past year to restore the rover's total drilling capabilities, which were hampered in 2016 due to a mechanical problem. Later this weekend, they will add percussion to a new technique that is already in use on Mars.

This new technique is called Feed Extended Drilling or FED. It allows Curiosity to drill more as a person would at home, using the strength of their robotic arm to push their drill bit forward as it rotates. The new version of FED adds a hammering force to the bit.

The drill was tested with the EDF technique without percussion at the end of February. It did not produce a rock sample successfully, but it did provide valuable results for engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The data from the percussion tests, currently planned for Saturday night, will help them perfect the drilling technique in the coming months.

"This is our next big test to restore drilling closer to the way it worked before," Steven said. Lee, Curiosity's deputy project manager at JPL. "Depending on how it works, we can fine tune the process, testing things like increasing the amount of force we apply during drilling."

The strategy has been to prototype these new methods as they move, Lee said. If percussion drilling successfully produces a sample this week, the team will immediately begin testing a new process to deliver that sample to the rover's internal laboratories. Meanwhile, JPL engineers will continue to adjust the extended drilling technique. At the same time, they are developing new ways to improve drill performance.

This week's test will serve a double function by potentially producing important science, said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of JPL. The rover has been moving along Vera Rubin Ridge to an uphill area enriched with clay minerals that the scientific team is eager to explore. In anticipation of being able to obtain samples, the rover changed direction in mid-April, heading towards a location just downhill from the ridge.

"We have intentionally backed down because the team believes there is a high value in drilling a different type of rock that forms a 200-foot-thick layer [about 60 meters] below the ridge," Vasavada said. "Fortunately, we're in a position to back up a bit and still pick up a target at the top of this layer."

The type of rock would fill a gap in the knowledge of the scientific team on Mount Sharp; Ultimately, they would like to badyze samples of all the major types of rocks they encounter with rover labs.

"Each layer of Mount Sharp reveals a chapter in the history of Mars, without the drill, our first step through this layer was like skimming the chapter, now we have the opportunity to read it in detail," Vasavada added.

Explore more:
The mission of Mars Rover moves towards the resumption of drilling

More information:
For more information about Curiosity, visit

Provided by:
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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