The Not-So-Big Dig
With the equivalent power of an electric can opener, engineers try to do more than scratch the Martian surface.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
(Page 4 of 4)
Scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center this summer ventured to the Canadian arctic to see whether artificial intelligence could control a Mars prototype drill. The Drilling Automation for the Mars Exploration (DAME) project bored into the Haughton Crater on Devon Island in Canada’s Nunavut Territory in late July to see if synthethic brainpower could keep the rig drilling for hours at a time without human interaction. The drill, built by Honeybee Robotics, ran on its own for a cumulative total of 43 hours, with the longest shift at 4.5 hours, and bored down 10.5 feet. Operating on 100 watts of power, the drill’s software also correctly responded to five of six known major fault modes. The experiment will help in designing drills for Mars, where robots will probably be able to “talk” with controllers on Earth only once or twice a day.
In a briefing at the Idaho National Laboratory last February, Arthur Lonne Lane, principal scientist of JPL’s Astrobiological Group, brought up several ancillary issues that NASA faces before sending drills to Mars. Data from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has shown NASA places where it does —and doesn’t—want to drill.
Scientists would love, for example, to drill at the polar ice caps, where radar surveys by Mars Express indicate that water may be found just three feet down. But engineering hurdles prevent that, for now. NASA’s next rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled to be launched in 2009, will carry equipment to bore into rocks. But the spacecraft is restricted to landing 60 degrees north or south of the equator, partly because the frozen ground at the poles could hinder the heavy rover’s movement.
Lane speaks eagerly about the possibility of studying Martian biology, while acknowledging the frustration of looking at the planet. Mars, he says, is in many places covered with a kind of “organic crud.” The deepest any spacecraft has penetrated that crud is about 10 centimeters—just under four inches—when a wheel on NASA’s Opportunity lander was purposefully spun to make a trench in February 2004. The rover then pointed spectrometers into the trench to analyze heat signatures and minerals, and found spherical, glass-like pebbles the size of BBs.
The rewards of drilling on Mars are uncertain and nearly impossible to calculate. Boreholes on Earth—whether for oil, gas, or something else—are expected to pay off right away in new resources or scientific information. It costs about $20 a foot to drill a six-inch diameter water well on Earth. Drilling a two-inch diameter hole on Mars that just might turn up fossilized life? Priceless.