Bringing Field Work Indoors

October 5, 2010.
Mono Lake, California

Credit: Henry Bortman

Scientists and engineers who gathered this week at Mono Lake hoping to test a prototype Mars rover in the field were once again forced today by the threat of rain to work indoors. The rover is outfitted with an early design of a drilling system that hopefully, in a decade or so, will travel to Mars, collect rock samples and store them for return to Earth.

The system contains two main components, a robotic arm with a coring drill on its end, and a caching system, capable of storing up to 19 small cylindrical rock samples obtained by the coring drill. Scientists hope that studying martian rocks with advanced instruments on Earth they will help them understand the potential for life on Mars, both now and in the past.

The Mono Lake field test is a joint effort between engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), who built the sample-acquisition system, and the AMASE team, based at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW), which over the past several years has developed expertise in field-testing scientific equipment for Mars missions.

Shown here, Andrew Steele (right), the principal investigator for AMASE, and Pamela Conrad, an AMASE co-investigator, discuss the best location for the robot to drill into a rock and collect a sample. At left, Matt DiCicco, a JPL software engineer, issues commands to the rover’s robotic arm. Because the team could not work outdoors, they brought a local rock indoors to a room generously made available by the principal at Lee Vining High School, where drilling operations took place.

The sampled rock, made of calcium carbonate, holds particular interest to those who study Mars because meteorites from Mars have been found to contain carbonate minerals. Carbonates form in the presence of liquid water, and on Earth, wherever there is liquid water, there is life.

Credit: Henry Bortman

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