Curiosity's laboratories resume analysis of Mars surface samples

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NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover used a new drill method to produce a hole on February 26 in a target named Lake Orcadie. The hole marks the first operation of the rover’s drill since a motor problem began acting up more than a year ago. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech/MSSS

After more than a year and a half of inactivity, the laboratories on NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover are once again analyzing surface samples collected from the Red Planet.

Due to a mechanical problem, the rover’s drill was deactivated in December of 2016, having collected its last samples two months earlier.

After mission engineers spent months developing new techniques for both drilling and transferring collected samples to the rover’s mineralogy and chemical laboratories, Curiosity conducted a test drilling on May 20 using a method labeled “feed extended drilling.”

The drill bit of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover over one of the sample inlets on the rover's deck. The inlets lead to Curiosity's onboard laboratories. This image was taken on Sol 2068 by the rover's Mast Camera (Mastcam). It has been white balanced and contrast-enhanced. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The drill bit of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover over one of the sample inlets on the rover’s deck. The inlets lead to Curiosity’s onboard laboratories. This image was taken on Sol 2068 by the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam). It has been white balanced and contrast-enhanced. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech/MSSS

On May 31, samples of rock powder collected during that drilling were successfully delivered to the rover’s mineralogy laboratory via a technique labeled “feed extended sample transfer.” Through the same technique, the samples will be delivered to Curiosity‘s chemical laboratory next week.

While both the drilling and feed transfer techniques were tested by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineers on Earth, achieving success on Mars is much more challenging because the Red Planet’s atmosphere is thin and dry, resulting in difficult conditions for removing sample powder from the drill.

“On Mars, we have to try and estimate visually whether this is working, just by looking at images of how much powder falls out,” of the drill, noted JPL‘s John Michael Moorokian, the engineer who pioneered the new sample transfer method. “We’re talking about as little as half a baby aspirin worth of sample.”

If the sample is either too big or too small, Curiosity‘s laboratories will be unable to conduct their analyses. Transferring too much powdered Martian rock risks clogging various instruments and throwing off future measurements while transferring too little could result in the laboratories being unable to accurately analyze the samples.

To successfully transfer the samples from the drill to the laboratories, Curiosity has to position its drill over two entry points at the top of Curiosity’s deck, enabling the rock powder to trickle into the laboratories.

With the drill now permanently extended, Curiosity can no longer access a device that separates and portions out the powder samples. Known as the Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis (CHIMRA), this device was crucial in allotting the appropriate samples to the rover’s laboratories.

Based on the rover’s experiences drilling and transferring the samples, engineers back on Earth continue to refine the techniques for both new methods.

The resumption of both drilling and sample analysis is viewed as a major milestone by the Curiosity team.

“This was no small feat. It represents months and months of work by our team to pull this off. JPL‘s engineers had to improvise a new way for the rover to drill rocks on Mars after a mechanical problem took the drill offline in December 2016,” explained Curiosity project manager Jim Erickson of JPL.

Mission project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, also of JPL, noted Curiosity‘s science team had such confidence in mission engineers that they drove the rover back over terrain it had already traversed to obtain samples that would otherwise have never been collected.

“It’s quite remarkable to have a moment like this, five years into the mission. It means we can resume studying Mount Sharp, which Curiosity is climbing, with our full range of scientific tools.”


Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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