NASA's Curiosity rover has encountered a few hiccups during its journey on Mars, including worn wheels, electrical issues and a balky drill. The wheels are holding together and it has recovered from the electrical problems, but the drill has haunted the machine for over a year.
The drill works by grinding a tiny bit of Mars into powder so it can be placed into Curiosity's onboard lab instruments for closer examination.
In late 2016, the rover's drill hit a snag when the motor used to extend it between its two stabilizers stopped working. The Curiosity team back on Earth has been trying to figure out a fix ever since. It may have finally hit on a workable solution.
First, the team got the drill to extend, but they could no longer use the stabilizers.
NASA describes the new drilling method as "more freehand." Curiosity now pushes the drill down with its arm and monitors its progress by using a force sensor to keep the drill from wandering or getting stuck.
NASA deputy project manager Steven Lee says the rover is now behaving more like a human would with a drill.
"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," he says.
NASA playfully calls this solution "MacGyvering." The Curiosity team has also come up with a new way to deliver the samples into the rover with a process it likens to applying seasoning by tapping a salt shaker.
The first test is promising, but Curiosity will next need to drill a deeper hole and try out the shaker method.
Scientists are eager to learn more about the rover's current location in an area rich with hematite. "Drilled samples might shed light on the origin of the ridge and the history of its interaction with water," says NASA.