Curiosity once again drilling into Mars rocks after long hiatus

Sidelined more than a year by a mechanical problem, the Curiosity Mars rover’s drill is back in action, using a new technique to bore a test hole 20 May. This image, captured by Curiosity’s Mast Camera, is white balanced and contrast enhanced. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Sidelined for more than a year by a mechanical problem, the Curiosity Mars rover’s drill is back in operation, allowing the robotic geologist to once again bore into rocks for sample collection and analysis.

After months of analysis and testing on Earth, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, recently uplinked commands for a new drilling technique that lets Curiosity’s drill bit extend out beyond two stabiliser posts originally intended to steady the bit against a target rock.

The Feed Extended Drilling technique allows Curiosity’s robot arm to impart additional force on the drill, much like a construction worker would use a drill on Earth. The new technique was successfully tested 20 May to bore a 5-centimetre (2-inch) deep hole in a target rocket dubbed “Duluth.” It was the first use of the drill since December 2016.

With the drill back in action, Curiosity engineers plan to begin testing a new process to collect rock fragments from around bore holes for delivery to the rover’s internal laboratory instruments for chemical analysis.

Curiosity has been making its way up Mount Sharp, a towering mound of layered rock in the center of Gale Crater, and currently is perched atop a feature known as Vera Rubin Ridge. With scientists hopeful the new drilling technique would work, Curiosity was ordered to reverse course in April and head for an area just below the ridge.

A wider shot, showing the test hole in context. The hole measures about 5 centimetres (2 inches) deep by 1.6 centimetres (0.6 inches) wide. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“We’ve purposely driven backwards because the team believes there’s high value in drilling a distinct kind of rock that makes up a 200-foot-thick [about 60 meters] layer below the ridge,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada. “We’re fortunately in a position to drive back a short way and still pick up a target on the top of this layer.”

By sampling rocks as it moves up Mount Sharp, scientists hope to get a more complete record of how Mars’ climate changed, turning a once warm, wet world in to the cold, dry planet seen today.

“Every layer of Mount Sharp reveals a chapter in Mars’ history,” said Vasavada. “Without the drill, our first pass through this layer was like skimming the chapter. Now we get a chance to read it in detail.”