Failure Curiosity puts mission at risk

When NASA scientists were preparing to apply the “wet chemistry” experiment, the rover bur broke, putting a key test for the organics of the Red Planet into question.

Failure Curiosity puts mission at risk

This is a self-portrait of a Curiosity rover, showing the machine on a drilled spot of the “Okoruso” sample on the lower plateau of Sharpe Mountain “Naukluft Plateau”. Here are a few pictures taken from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) rover on May 11, 2016, during the 1338th Martian day of the apparatus

Researchers hope to take a closer look at organic Martian material, possibly including life-related molecules. Therefore, waiting for an engineering miracle.

Since December, the Curiosity team has been working on a problem with the rover's drill. This is an important tool for obtaining images of Martian bedrock for chemical analysis. Such an analysis has already shown that Mars once had components and habitats for viable microbes. Curiosity also found organochlorine compounds, although their origin remains unknown. A key experiment is to use a chemical solvent to get more detailed information about organics. This is a task of potential biological significance, and fatty acids, amino acids, amines, and possibly even nucleotides can be detected there. “The most stable molecules that can be related to life are lipids or fatty acids, which act as chemical components of cell membranes,” said Paul Mahaffi, a lead researcher in rover testing. “This is one of the most reliable and best-preserved molecular biosignatures found in ancient terrestrial rocks.”

It took engineers time to work out the details and write a program for the rover to quickly add the rocky powder to the wet chemical cup. As soon as the seal of the cup is torn off, the solvent immediately begins to evaporate.

“We need to throw the sample as quickly as possible and run the experiment,” said the scientist of the project Ashvin Wasavada. “If there is organic there, then it will allow us to see a whole class of organic molecules that were not previously noticed by the mission.”

There are 9 wet cups installed on the rover, but the scientists decided to wait until the device can drill the rocks rich in clay at the base of the Sharp mountain. This is three miles high mound, rising from the surface of the landing site of the rover in the crater Gail.

The team was just preparing to use wet chemistry when the drill broke. Engineers traced the problems of jamming the brakes deep inside the engine.

“This problem happened really unexpectedly,” said Vasavada. “We want to make sure we have time to do the experiment before we leave the Murray formation (the basal layer of Mount Sharp), where we saw organic signatures in the rocks.”

Failure Curiosity puts mission at risk

Curiosity's rover robotic arm turns to show its drill on February 15

The rover, slowly climbing Mount Shar, has already passed 2/3 of the way through the Murray formation. He is expected to go beyond the region this year.

“Instead of stopping the mission because of all these problems, the team decided to stick to the route, as there are still big goals ahead,” Vasawada says.

Engineers are looking for an alternative way to repair the drill brake. If it fails, the team will begin to design a new algorithm for drilling.

“Ideally, we do not want to change the algorithm, because it took many years to develop it. But, perhaps, we will write some additional codes that will determine where the hitch is, and try new steps for inclusion. Maybe we will turn off the brake at the time of drilling. All this will take several months, ”said Vasavada.

At the same time, the rover can find loose sand of interest to scientists and use a scoop to deliver samples.

“However, the scoop can limit our capabilities and will not allow us to get to the most interesting specimens,” said Mahaffi. “I still hope that our team will be creative and come up with a solution.”

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