I love to discuss Mars rovers. The thought of robots roaming around the empty red desert, doing science in pure form, unmasking the surprising history of our red neighbour, it’s exciting and it’s the frontier of discovery. The limits of science and engineering are pushed as we send complex machines to travel further than any human in history. But with such a marvellous feat, issues can arise, and when they do, the nearest mechanic is 55 Million Km away.
On February 27th, during the transfer of a sample of dust from the rover’s drill to its instruments, the rover suffered a ‘transient short circuit,’ a spike in current that could have damaged its systems. The rover has not moved since, and has kept its 7 meter robotic arm stationary, allowing mission scientists to run diagnostics and ensure everything is running smoothly before continuing.
The testing has been productive, and the issue is narrowed down to a short in the robotic arm’s percussion drill. The rover’s drill not only spins to bore into the Martian rock, it also has a hammer mechanism that allows it to smash its way through. This is where the issue originated. Before the mission team allows the rover to move, they are performing more tests to fully characterize the short, in case it doesn’t appear with a different orientation of the arm. Once the testing is complete, they will attempt to move the drill sample to the instruments as was originally planned, before continuing to look for ways to adjust their strategy for drilling in the future.
These kinds of issues have popped up several times with all of the Mars rovers, but we can hope that Curiosity will continue its mission as it is approaching an ascent of mount Sharp, and will arguably obtain its most interesting data in the next few months.