Mars Rover Gets a Break in the Weather

October 6, 2010.
Mono Lake, California

Credit: Henry Bortman

A break in the weather this morning finally gave NASA scientists and engineers an opportunity to test a prototype Mars rover under true field conditions. Until today the threat of rain and lightning had forced them to work indoors.

The rover is outfitted with an early design of a drilling system for a proposed 2018 mission to Mars that will collect rock samples and store them for return to Earth. In this early design phase, some of the steps in the acquisition-and-storage process are conducted manually, although any rover ultimately sent to Mars will be fully automated. The model rover is shown here, along the western shore of Mono Lake, drilling into a rock comprised primarily of volcanic pumice and coated by a thin layer of calcium carbonate.

The Mono Lake rover field test is a joint effort between engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), who designed and built the robot, 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. The purpose of the test was to discover what types of problems might crop up during drilling in the field that hadn’t previously occurred under more-controlled laboratory test conditions. Although rain turned out to be the main stumbling block – rain won’t be a concern on Mars; it never rains there – a number of unexpected issues emerged that will be useful in designing the next iteration of the system.

Mono Lake was chosen as a field site because it lies in an evaporitic basin containing high concentrations of salts and alkaline compounds. Similar environmental conditions may have existed on Mars, billions of years ago, as that once-wet world lost the last of its water and became the desert planet that it is today. The team was able to obtain three separate cores from rocks along the lakeshore, although as they began to drill for the third time, rain moved in from the west. To prevent damage to the rover, they had to scramble to erect a makeshift shelter, its roof a portable shade canopy, its sides assembled from blue plastic tarps.

Credit: Henry Bortman

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