Friday, May 25, 2018

NASA Remotely Hacks Curiosity’s Rock Drill

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We have a lot of respect for the hackers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). When their stuff has a problem, it is often millions of miles away and yet they often find a way to fix it anyway. Case in point is the Curiosity Mars rover. Back in 2016, the probe’s rock drill broke. This is critical because one of the main things the rover does is drill into rock samples, collect the powder and subject it to analysis. JPL announced they had devised a way to successfully drill again.

The drill failed after fifteen uses. It uses two stabilizers to steady itself against the target rock. A failed motor prevents the drill bit from retracting and extending between the stabilizers. Of course, sending a repair tech 60 million miles is not in the budget, so they had to find another way. You can see a video about the way they found, below.

NASA calls what happened “MacGyvering.” The drill bit is fully extended at all times. Now the rover has to use the entire arm to push the drill forward and recenter without the stabilizers. The arm has a force sensor made to detect if the arm strikes something. That sensor now has a new purpose, to monitor the progress of the drilling.

There’s still one more piece of the puzzle to solve. Since the drill no longer retracts, it can’t deliver the payload of rock powder to the onboard laboratories. Since the drill has a percussion mechanism, they’ve figured out a way to “tap out” the powder in their mockup here on Earth. They’ll be testing how well it works on Mars soon. If we were gamblers, we’d bet they will figure it out.

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