Icebreaker field team arrives in New Zealand

Row propertiesAre thereorganic compounds or signs of past or present life on Mars? The top meter isdry and irradiated.  But we havestill only dug (with Phoenix in 2007) about 20cm, and the small drill on theCuriosity rover is only 5cm long. It is the Mars subsurface, of a meter or more deep, where we expect tofind any preserved life-signatures and past climate history.  So, we need a drill that can retrievematerial at depths of 1m or more. Given the lightspeed time delays, a drill on Mars must be autonomous,very different from how drilling is done on Earth.

The “Icebreaker”mission concept is to return to Mars to an area with subsurface ice layers inthe first 1m depth, either at the polar latitudes (first visited by the Phoenixmission in 2007-08) or mid-latitudes (Viking). The Icebreaker payload could bemounted on a modified Phoenix spacecraft bus or on a rover, and carry anautomated 1m rotary-percussive drill, the SOLID life-detection instrument, an AlphaParticle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) and JPL’s Wet Chemistry Lab, togethercapable of detecting organics in the presence of perchlorates or other strongoxidants.  The automated Icebreakerdrill captures downhole materials in the bottom 10cm of its drill string andraises these to the surface where they are mechanically removed and transferredto on-deck instruments.

Artist’s concept of the Icebreaker drill and sample transfer system, mounted on a Phoenix-derived Mars lander platform. 

Planetarydrilling and sampling beyond the Moon requires intelligent and autonomoussystems.  Unlike terrestrialdrills, the Icebreaker drill will work without injected drilling muds orlubricants, blind (with no prior local or regional seismic or other surveysbeyond Phoenix’s excavations), and weak (very low [200N] downward force orweight on bit, and perhaps 100W power available).  Given the 7-20 minute lightspeed transmission delays toMars, while drilling faults manifest in terms of seconds, the Icebreaker drillcannot be controlled directly from Earth. Therefore highly reliable automated operations will be necessary, withthe ability to safe the drilling system and recover from almost any downholefault condition on its own.

ThePhoenix arm was able to reach and scrape the ground ice but was unable topenetrate it significantly. Sampling deeper into the ground ice to acquire materials depositedduring warmer climates requires a drill. The Icebreaker drill was designed andbuilt by Honeybee Robotics.  Wehave tested both rotary-drag and rotary-percussive drill designs in laboratorychamber tests and in field tests at Mars analog sites These have been in turnused to validate and test the controls and drill health management softwarenecessary for Icebreaker automated drilling and sampling operations.

Over thepast four years, our Icebreaker team has developed the rotary-percussive drillhardware, the automated controls for the drill, and integrated these with asample-transfer arm to instruments on a mockup spacecraft deck.  A dry run in at Haughton Crater in theCanadian Arctic in July 2012 showed that these could work together to acquireand convey subsurface samples to on-board instruments for analysis. 

Thetechnology objective of this field season is to repeat these integrated testsin a higher-fidelity, more difficult Mars analog site, in the Dry Valleys ofAntarctica, and to continue to improve the reliability and fault-tolerance ofthe whole drilling and sample acquisition system. 

NASA’s AstrobiologyScience and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program supportsinvestigations that focus on exploring Earth’s extreme environments to learnhow best to search for life on other planets. A related effort called the AstrobiologyScience and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID) program supports thedevelopment and testing of new technologies to enable the search for lifeoutside Earth’s biosphere. Icebreaker is an umbrella project supported by both ASTEP and ASTID toboth develop sample-acquisition technologies and incorporate these in investigationsin extreme environments.

This fieldseason, our team of seven will be comprised of three NASA Ames researchers(Alfonso Davila, Margarita Marinova, and myself), a Honeybee Robotics drillengineer (Bolek Mellerowicz), two university co-investigators (Wayne Pollard ofMcGill University, Denis Lacelle of the University of Ottawa) and a graduatestudent (Jacqueline Goordial of McGill University).

AlfonsoDavila departed for Antarctica in December and has been at McMurdo Station fora couple of weeks, serving as our advance liaison there.  The rest of the team departed NorthAmerica on 29 December 2012 and are now in Christchurch,New Zealand waiting for weather and aircraft availability for the next leg downto McMurdo.  We have been told thatthe ice runway at McMurdo Station has been too warm – hence mushy – for aircraftto depart to return to the Antarctic deployment center at Christchurch, NewZealand, So we have had to wait several days longer than expected inChristchurch (which locals abbreviate as “Chch”). 

Arriving in Christchurch -- the US Antarctic Center

Arriving In Christchurch…  The US Antarctic Center buildings are visible, along with a NY Air National Guard C-130.