NASA’s Curiosity rover could destroy its own electronics systems when it begins using its percussive drill to mine Mars rock samples, the space agency has admitted, a known flaw since before the robot explorer even took off from Earth. The late discovery of a prone-to-failure bond in the drilling mechanism forced the Jet Propulsion Team responsible for the rover to implement a potential workaround, after realizing that should the bond break, an electrical short could zap all of Curiosity’s computer systems.
“Unless you do something about it, all hell breaks loose electronically, because it takes our power bus and rattles it around,” chief engineer on the Curiosity project, Rob Manning, told Space. “It’s almost like the drill grabs the rover and shakes the whole thing electronically.”
The flaw is not likely to affect the officially planned two-year duration of Curiosity’s mission exploring Mars, the team says, but the problem is likely to show itself beyond that. The JPL team at NASA has said it intends to continue remotely operating Curiosity for as long as it is scientifically feasible, after the original goals of the mission are met.
Curiosity’s drill is an essential element of that, giving the rover the ability to dig up to an inch into the Martian rock. Samples to-date have been taken by scraping sections of the Martian topsoil, but the drill was due to be implemented sometime before the end of the year, when a suitable site has been identified.
NASA’s workaround to the shorting issue involves a second wiring loom, which pre-emptively shorts out the rover’s power bus before any significant damage can be done. The system was implemented “a month or two” before Curiosity began its journey to Mars back in November 2011.