Icebreaker Team Successfully Tests Mars-Prototype Drill in Dry Valleys

The NASA Ames-led Icebreaker project field team has returned to McMurdo Station, after deploying to University Valley, one of the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, from 22-31 January.  Team members studied the sparse life in the soil and rocks as an analog for the niches that we might search someday on Mars for signs of past or extant life there.  Others drilled cores into the permafrost to study the past climate history here.  And we tested an integrated subsurface sample acquisition and transfer system that could feed future instruments or a cache to be returned to Earth for analysis. 

The Icebreaker drill was set up in University Valley first, on 23 January, and checked out.  Added to it was a mockup Phoenix-like spacecraft deck, with mockup instruments with inlet ports and a robotic sample transfer arm.  Remote commanding from Ames was possible through command encoding, compression, transmission (via Iridium satellite phone data link), reconstruction, and buffering (until read later and executed by the automated system).  With time lags and store-and-forward aspects, it resembled the process of relaying commands via the Deep Space Network.  The communications and the transfer robotics were set up and tested on 24-25 January.  On 25 January my co-PI in the umbrella Icebreaker project, Dr. Chris McKay, sent a command file from his laptop at Ames.  It was received here in University Valley about twenty minutes later, stored for three hours, then executed when the sample acquisition system came online.  Icebreaker drilled 20 cm, then the arm transferred powdery cuttings to the instrument inlet ports, and a command acknowledgement log was stored and later sent back some hours later to McKay.  This demonstrated remote automated subsurface sample acquisition, just as would be performed from a rover or lander on Mars.

The Icebreaker drill (center), with sample transfer robot arm (to left of drill, extended), and instrument
mockups with sample inlet ports (left).

Another goal of Dry Valleys testing was to exercise the control and automation software of the drill — detecting when it is getting itself in trouble, and adjusting its settings and actions to stay safe and continue to progress.  All five major fault modes came up naturally in testing (given the harsh environment) and were detected and addressed.  Including jammed bits, hard materials (or bit wearout), choking in its own cuttings, side-binding (usually due to a collapsed hole), and corkscrewing (like a stopper remover, the auger hangs and everything stretches).  Drill automation tests in University Valley were held near base camp as well as farther out in the valley in a previously-unsurveyed bowl-shaped depression. 

Team members (Glass, Mellerowicz) try to stay warm during drill automation
testing at the University Valley Mars-analog site.

Other team members finished their studies of climate change, and drilled (with larger commercial drills) to get clues regarding the subsurface populations of microbes at varying levels, as well as studying whether ice has been formed in the soil directly from atmospheric vapor exchange, vs. precipitation. 

Our team completed all of our goals and objectives for this field season, and took down camp and returned by helicopter to McMurdo on 31 January. Apart from cleaning and turning in field equipment here, we had two more educational outreach sessions today (2 February) with classrooms near Montreal and Pleasanton, CA. One more E/PO session will be held early Tuesday before the team closes up in McMurdo. 

2013 University Valley field camp. 

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.