IceBite Blog: Setting Up an IceBreaker

The Science Cargo yard: due to the large number of researchers in the field this year, some cargo had to be stored between buildings. We were happy to find all of the drill parts among the boxes. Credit: M. Marinova

Since the arrival to the McMurdo station in the Antarctic two days ago, most of our time has been spent on assembling and testing our Mars prototype drill: the Icebreaker. Icebreaker was built to break into the hard icy soil of Mars.

On our first day at the McMurdo station we went to our laboratory and found that only two out of the eight boxes we shipped to Antarctic two months ago actually made it here. We were worried that the remaining six boxes may still be in New Zealand, or even worse in the US!

However, while walking to the Science Cargo building, we found all of our remaining boxes among other shipped items, lying on the frozen ground and waiting for their owners. We were ecstatic.

The following day, the McMurdo crew moved our boxes into the warm laboratory where we could put together the drill and test it.

Honeybee Robotics engineers Kris Zacny (l) and Gale Paulsen with the assembled Icebreaker drill outside the team’s laboratory in McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

At this time, all boxes are unpacked and every part that makes up the drill has been inspected.

We carefully looked at our rotary-percussive drill head that rotates the drill bit and also generates percussive or hammering action (similar to a hardware store drill). We wanted to make sure that all the internal mechanisms such as motors, gears, and bearings survived the trip to Antarctica. The drill head is quite complicated since it has to work in the extreme cold of Antarctic, and the combined extreme cold plus vacuum environment on Mars.

IceBreaker’s auger, a metal rod with an external thread, brings samples up from below the surface. A brush (center of image) then scrapes the samples off the auger into a sample-collection jar (lower-left of image).

We also inspected our Z-stage, that lowers the drill one meter down into the subsurface, and an auger bit – a slender one meter long rod that looks likes a screw with deep threads and a bit at the end.

The bit has a small thermocouple that measures the bit’s temperature and in turn tells us how much the surrounding soil heats up during drilling. After all, we don’t want to accidentally melt the ice during drilling, and then freeze the drill in as the drilling stops and everything cools down very quickly.

The temperature sensor and all other drill parts looked fine.

It took us almost a day to assemble all the parts into a fully functional drill. We did a system level check (rotated the drill, moved the drill up/down, measured the bit temperature) to make sure everything works as planned.

We also set up a teleoperation routine. We used a laptop connected to the Internet in another room, to operate a drill in an adjacent room. We will use the same routine next week, however, next week all the drill commands will be sent not from an adjacent room but from a school in San Francisco and through a satellite! A group of students will be able to drill a hole in the Antarctic permafrost thousands of miles away. We will also have Skype so they can see whether indeed the drill penetrates the ground.

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