IceBite Blog: Remote Control

Young drill operators from Valley View School in Pleasanton, California. Chris McKay and Arwen Dave from NASA Ames are in the center. Robert Palassou from the school is on the right. Credit: Henry Bortman

On Thursday, Nov. 18th, we had a very exciting day. Our Mars drill was to be operated by a class of 5th grade students from Valley View School in Pleasanton, California. We got up early in the morning to set up the drill and the communication system and to make sure everything was ready for 11 am California time (8 am our time). Though it may seem that California is 3 hours ahead of us, in fact it is 21 hours behind us! Because we are very close to the International Date Line (IDL), our day starts 21 hours before California’s day. Thus we were already on Thursday while California was still on Wednesday.

At 11 am sharp, we called Robert Palassou, the teacher in charge of the class. Chris McKay, project principal investigator and Arwen Davé, project engineer, both from NASA Ames, were already at the school introducing kids to our nearest planetary neighbor: Mars. Skype worked very well. We could see them and they could see us. It was very exciting. It was as if we were on another planet calling home. Well, Antarctica is almost like another planet!

We also had another Internet line setup just for controlling our Mars drill, called the IceBreaker (since one day it will break into icy soils and ice on Mars and acquire samples for analysis).

The Icebreaker drill being tele-operated at McMurdo. Alfonso Davila (NASA Ames) and Gale Paulsen (Honeybee) watch in amazement as the school kids run the drill for them. They are close to losing their job! Margarita Marinova (NASA Ames) in front, talks to students. Credit: Kris Zacny

We used online software (why reinvent the wheel, right?). The software allows a user to remotely view and operate one computer from another computer. Thus, the students in California could see our computer screen and move mouse around it and click on various drilling parameters. And they had lots of options! Before we knew it, the drill started to move. The kids were eager to drill – there was no time to waste! First, they used the Seek routine to find the ground. The drill slowly moved down until it stopped when it touched it. (We use this routine all the time when grinding rocks with the Honeybee Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) on the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It works every time.)

Then came drilling. California operators clicked new buttons and the drill started to rotate and at the same time started to hammer into the ground. This combined rotary and hammering motion makes drilling very efficient, so the drill generates very little heat. This is important when drilling icy soils, because we don’t want to melt and vaporize the ice. The drill initially moved slowly and then sped up and reached 10 cm depth in no time.

This is what we saw through Skype in the Antarctic.

Then came the best part: sample acquisition (after all, that’s what the drill is for: to acquire a sample!). Another few buttons later, and the drill moved up and samples fell into a small jar. Mission accomplished! Well, not entirely. There were more kids that wanted to have a go at drilling in Antarctica. And thus the cycle repeated over and over. It was really fun to watch the drill doing its thing. If I knew things were going to go that easily, I would have gone to have breakfast (which I completely missed that day)! Margarita Marinova, a scientist from NASA Ames, collected all the samples and promised to bring them back to the school so our young drill operators could carefully analyze them. Who knows, maybe one of these young drillers will one day operate a drill on Mars!

Every 10 cm, the drill autonomously acquired sample into a small jar. Very often, the jar would be completely filled. Credit: Kris Zacny

The next day came another big test: our goal was to drill to 1 meter depth into ice cemented ground (which is as hard as rock) and to acquire samples at 10 cm intervals. This time, however, we moved the drill some distance from McMurdo station since we didn’t need the Internet anymore. The drill worked as designed. Every 10 cm it would move upward with new material from below the surface, and we would capture a jar-full of sample. This continued all the way until 1 meter was reached.

The Icebreaker drill on an eleven-degree slope, drilling one meter into ice-cemented ground (volcanic tephra). From left to right: Kris Zacny (Honeybee), Margarita Marinova (NASA Ames), Wayne Pollard (McGill University), Alfonso Davila (NASA Ames), Gale Paulsen (Honeybee).

During all this time, our power levels were around 100 Watts, about what a light bulb uses. We also made sure that the force that the drill is pushing against the ground is no more than 20 lbs. The reason for this is that Mars has low gravity and hence everything weighs a third of what it does on Earth. The Mars lander that carries the drill will be relatively lightweight. We don’t want the drill to lift the lander up while drilling.

Our drill also monitored the bit temperature – we wanted to make sure that the temperature during drilling doesn’t rise too much – otherwise ice could melt or certain type of minerals could change their structure! And to make everything even more difficult, we put the drill on an eleven-degree slope – after all, what are the chances that the Mars lander will land on a perfectly level ground? The icebreaker drill cooperated and we were done in time to catch dinner and warm up with a cup of coffee. Mission accomplished, for now.

On Monday, we are off to University Valley, one of the valleys within Dry Valleys. Our goal will be to drill into ice-cemented ground (with different properties than the ice-cemented ground at McMurdo) and also into pure ice. That should be a great fun! We were told that we should expect temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Our drill probably will take that. I’m not sure about me, though! We will see. Until then!

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