Curiosity Rover Readies Drill To Gnash On Mars

Curiosity’s chisel-like drill photographed on Mars by the Mastcam. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

I can’t help it. When I see a drill I think of the dentist and all the boring my teeth have endured over the years. That high-pitched whine, the holes carefully excavated for fillings. The bill. Yet without the occasional trip to the dentist, our lives would be punctuated with much unnecessary suffering.

Curiosity will finally use its own drill in the coming days to gather a sample of rock particles for analysis at the Yellowknife Bay site on Mars. Scientists and engineers have taken great care to find the right kind of rock and best location for drilling. A nearly flat surface is a must for stability as is a fine-grained rock, that when ground up, will serve to clean the inside of the drill and its sample storage area. Rocks that look solid but could turn to mud under the pressure of drilling have to be avoided. Researchers don’t want to gum up the instrument.

The drill in the turret of tools at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm is seen on Jan. 27, 2013 in contact with a patch of flat, veined rock called “John Klein.” It’s one of several tests underway before real drilling begins. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The term “drill” is a bit misleading. The device is really a spinning chisel with a hammer-like motion that breaks up rock into powdery bits. The material is then augured up a hollow sleeve and into a small storage area. Rock from the first few drilling attempts will be used to clean the mechanism of any earthly contamination; later samples will be stored atop the bit and delivered to a particle-size sorter by extending the rover arm and letting gravity move the material. From there, it heads to the internal chem lab for analysis.

Landscape scene captured on Jan. 27, 2013 by Curiosity’s Mastcam. The temperature here varies 117 degrees from 32 F to -85 F during the Martian day. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One other concern being addressed is how the day-night temperature change at Curiosity’s location affects how much pressure the rover’s arm can apply on the drill. Afternoon high temperatures are around the freezing point, while nighttime lows sink to -85 F. The wide swing in temperatures causes the rover arm, chassis and mobility system to grow and shrink about a tenth of an inch or a little more than the thickness of a quarter over the course of a Martian day (40 minutes longer than an Earth day).

While NASA doesn’t plan on leaving the drill bit in overnight, if it happens, engineers need to know what to expect as far as stress limits on rover hardware. That’s why mission control performed a “pre-load” test yesterday (Jan. 28) to find out how the temperature affected the pressure on the drill.

So many details to consider if we want our robot to live a long and productive life on the Red Planet. No wonder 400 scientists are involved in the mission.

11 Responses

      1. H.Bob

        The interesting thing in this picture is that the foreground rocks look as if they are simply covered in a fine layer of red sand, and that if a strong wind came along, the sand would be blown off to expose granite like mountain terrain. Presumably, there are not strong winds on Mars though.

        1. Wayne Hawk

          Aloha H. Bob!

          Oh contraire my fellow “Astro Bob blog fan”!

          The winds DO get strong on Mars. Unfortunately, there is SO much red dust covering the planet that it just moves it from one covered area to another area that was uncovered by wind, only to cover it up again! The result being never having an area that isn’t covered in red dust! Sometimes these storms kick up enough dust to go GLOBAL! Now that’s GOT to be strong winds!

          For an excellent website to visit for information on these storms (and great before and “during” photos), please visit this one from NASA:

          Aloha Just For Now!

          1. astrobob

            Bob and Wayne,
            Very true Wayne! The winds of Mars are always moving dust and sand from one place to the next. If it wasn’t for the occasional scour from Martian dust devils, the Opportunity rover solar panels would not be able to provide the necessary power they do.

  1. Wayne Hawk

    Aloha Astro Bob!

    I get the feeling you and I are about the same “generation” where our parents weren’t all that strict to remind us as children to brush our teeth regularly so as teenagers/young adults and even later on in life, had to have our teeth “worked on”. Unfortunately for us, experiencing that was traumatic enough so we now have those infamous “flashbacks”, even when seeing something basically unrelated. You can bet MY children were taught differently so they don’t go through anything similar.

    Having friends who worked on the Alaskan oil pipeline right after high school tell me how brittle tools and other metallic instruments would get in the extremely bitter cold, I can understand scientists concern about the “drill” and “drill bit”. Since it doesn’t have a backup instrument/tool to fall back on, it would be disastrous for anything to go wrong with any of Curiosity’s moving parts. The scientists in the space program have been very imaginative when something goes wrong, so for the most part, has been able to “get by” enough to succeed in most of the experiments and research that have been planned.

    Perhaps someday we will be able to assemble some sort of “service station”, so to speak, so if and when mechanical failures/breakdowns happen they can be repaired “on the spot”. Since spacecraft like Curiosity costs so very much, it is too bad that the “powers-that-be” don’t feel the need to have some way to repair/replace such things like the chisel-like drill bit and such. Rather than risk being able to NOT do absolutely any analyzing of the martian surface! To me, to put something to replace such devices on it would be MORE than worth it rather than risk complete/total failure.

    Heaven forbid if anything should go wrong or fail with the planned research and experiments on Curiosity. The people whose taxes are paying for this are easily swayed to “the other side” and the last thing our space program needs is a lot of negative public opinion. Agree? If only everyone realized the more we learn about the solar system and universe improves our human existence on earth! Instead, most can’t see past the dollars being spent. We’ve benefited so much from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs and I don’t believe the majority of people realize just how much.

    Wonderful ‘update’ blog of the hard working rover, thank you for writing it!

  2. Mike

    I am surprised at your opening statement in a scientific article about space. The dental profession is one that has long and successful history dedicated to improving health, relief of pain, eliminating infection, health education and prevention. It takes years of dedication to become these dental professionals who provide these services sometimes under very difficult circumstances. They should be lauded and given our support for providing a much needed service to the public.
    Thanks for your articles and photos Bob. Take care.

    1. astrobob

      Sometimes I like to add a little drama for effect. I don’t care much for drilling and pounding but realize of course that without a good dentist, life would be far more miserable.

  3. Lynn

    Hi Bob
    I liked your opening about the dentist, it gave me a chuckle and that’s what I like about your blog, it is about science, but every now and then you throw in a comment that make’s me laugh and it’s a nice bit of your personality that people get to know and not full of gloom as sometimes in astronomy there is people that take it very seriously which is a good thing and I believe you do too but just put in a little bit of humour along the way, and I also wanted to say hello to Wayne, that poor guy say’s hello mostly everytime he write’s to you and nobody say’s it back, so hi WAYNE 🙂

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