Guess why the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration has deployed an autonomous drill aboard a rover in Chile’s Atacama Desert? Hint: Think red; Red Planet to be precise.
The drill is part of the Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies project, or ARADS, whose aim is to trace trace tiny, living microbes or their fossilised remains on Mars.
The drill is attached to a rover, called K-REX2, carrying a suite of instruments that will analyse the soil samples dug up by the rover.
The Atacama desert, called the “driest place on Earth” provides a Mars-like atmosphere: Very little water and intense ultraviolet radiation. In such harsh conditions, life exists as microbial colonies underground or inside rocks.
The drill can reach two metres (6.5 feet) down through salt, rock layers and parched soil to retrieve a sample for analysis.
It can dig 20 times deeper than that the upcoming Mars 2020 rover, Nasa said.
“ARADS is all about preparing Nasa to search for life on Mars,” said Brian Glass, principal investigator for the ARADS programme at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in California’s Silicon Valley.
“Developing the science instruments and robotics we’ll need is a big part of that, and so is figuring out how we actually run the mission. The best way to practice that is to go and do it here on Earth,” Glass added.
Mars is extremely dry and cold; its surface holds a thousand times less water than the driest parts of the Atacama. Drilling in such harsh environments could be risky — it can get stuck or frozen.
But, the new drill can “operate without real-time human input, every motor on the drill is continuously collecting feedback,” Nasa said. The rover can navigate autonomously over a rugged terrain, drill and then transfer samples to the onboard scientific instruments automatically. If it gets stuck, it can dislodge itself.
“What’s unique about this drill is that it can take you from dirt to data, all on its own,” said Thomas Stucky, the sample-handling software lead for ARADS, in a release.
“All the scientists have to do is point the rover to where it needs to dig, tell the drill how deep to go, and the drill will figure out the rest,” Stucky added.
Testing the drill and life-detecting technologies in such harsh and unpredictable field condition can help future missions to the Red Planet like Nasa’s 2020 rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars missions.
“If there’s any life on Mars’ subsurface, it’s likely in the form of microbes struggling to live off very trace amounts of water in soil or salt layers,” said Arwen Davé, systems engineer for ARADS. “Based on what the drill can tell us about the soil, we can detect where those layers are, maybe even leading us to where the life is.”
The autonomous drill can also be used to locate water and other resources on the Moon.