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A Wet Run for a Dry Planet: NASA Tests Drilling Technology in the Desert with Mars Sample Return in Mind [Slide Show]

Despite a gummed up drill bit and three days of very un-Martian precipitation, engineers pronounced the test a success--and learned to expect the unexpected, whether it be in the California outback or on Mars

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HOLY GRAIL

Many planetary scientists view a successful Mars sample-return mission as a kind of "Holy Grail" of solar system exploration—an unprecedented opportunity to bring pristine pieces of another planet directly back to labs on Earth for in-depth analysis.....[ More ]

A SAMPLE PLAN

On a Mars sample-return mission, the rover would do all the work drilling cores and caching rock samples for a return flight. But during field tests it is all about learning in stages how the technology should be developed for its ultimate mission.....[ More ]

GETTING GUMMED UP

Moisture inside a target rock can cause problems for drilling operations, engineers discovered during their field tests at Mono. The drill bit generates heat from friction as it bores into the rock, and water combines with core tailings to create clay that can gum up the drill.....[ More ]

AUTOMATED CACHING

Team members examine the rover's SHEC (Sample Handling, Encapsulation and Containerization) system as a handling arm inside extracts a sample tube filled with a rock core from the rover's drill bit and inserts it into a canister, where it is capped and sealed.....[ More ]

TUFA

The NASA team worked at the western shoreline of the lake, where volcanic pumice boulders caked with a layer of calcium carbonate pock the landscape. In other places around the lake geologic formations called tufa, formed underwater and now exposed in the evaporating lake, make Mono Lake's shoreline an eerie sight.....[ More ]

DRILL BABY, DRILL

The evaporative environment at Mono Lake, revealing calcium carbonate formations that were once submerged, may have characterized Mars' ancient past. Evidence of past life may be entrained in such geologic formations.....[ More ]

CONTACT!

Once a microscopic imager on board the rover photographs the drill site on a target rock, a tungsten carbide drill bit at the end of the rover's arm moves into position and bites into the rock. The drill employs both percussion, like a jackhammer, as well as rotation to extract a core.....[ More ]

ZEROING IN

Pamela Conrad, an astrobiologist at Goddard, contemplates the rover's next move as it inches closer to a rock targeted for coring. The dark rock is pumice dating back to a volcanic eruption below the lake about 1,700 years ago.....[ More ]

READY TO ROVE

Engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena carry a Mars-class rover toward the western shoreline of Mono Lake in California. During the first week of October, a team of researchers from JPL, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Carnegie Institution for Science conducted its first field test of a drilling and caching system that could be used on a Mars sample-return mission proposed for 2018.....[ More ]

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