In late January, NASA revealed one of its Mars rovers, Curiosity, was back in action by posting the first ever Martian selfie. While Curiosity’s extremely millennial comeback meant that it could begin beaming some sweet pictures of the Red Planet back down to Earth, one of the rover’s other crucial features had gone offline.
A drill attached to the car-sized robot’s mechanical arm had broken down back in 2016, preventing it from analyzing samples of Mars’ ancient rocks. After 15 months of work, NASA engineers came up with a simple, but brilliant plan that allowed the rover to dig into the planet’s surface for the first time in more than a year.
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Before it malfunctioned, Curiosity’s tool was a lot like a drill press. Two metal rods would anchor to the ground and the drill would be lowered down. Now the rover uses a freehand approach, by simply pressing the metal tip down against a rock with its mechanical arm. A lot like us Earthlings when we’re using a hand drill.
“We’re now drilling on Mars more like the way you do at home,” Steven Lee, deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says in a statement. “Humans are pretty good at re-centering the drill, almost without thinking about it. Programming Curiosity to do this by itself was challenging — especially when it wasn’t designed to do that.”
This new technique involves repurposing a force sensor to center the drill. The sensor had conveniently been installed into the rover’s arm to protect it from high-force jolts. Now it’s being used as the first step to get Curiosity to continue to carry out its investigation of the Martian surface.
The hole it bored on Mars’ surface was only half an inch thick, which is not deep enough to collect a sample. But with proof that this method works, engineers can now focus on improving its effectiveness.
We’re cheering for your Curiosity, just keep on diggin’.