Is There Life on Mars? Icecap Drill Hopes to Find Out
Carlyn McGill posted on December 10, 2015 |

The Planetary Deep Drill is four meters long and has a width of 6.4 cm in diameter. Photo courtesy of Honeybee Robotics.

The Planetary Deep Drill is four meters long and has a width of 6.4 cm in diameter. Photo courtesy of Honeybee Robotics.

What is the Planetary Deep Drill?

The Planetary Deep Drill is a wire-line drill designed to reach miles below extraterrestrial surfaces.

Researchers designed the lightweight drill to meet the payload and excavation requirements required to reach far below the icy surface formations of Mars, Enceladus or Europa.

The drill measures four meters (13 feet) long, with a diameter of 6.4 centimeters (2.5 inches). The Planetary Deep Drill also features motors, electronics and sensors to operate its tungsten carbide tip that pounds into ice and rock at more than 250 revolutions per minute.

The researchers claim the system can operate on 100 watts of power, about the same as two and a half incandescent light bulbs. The ability to operate on such low power is necessary when the drill is far away from any resupply source.

The drill features a microscope coupled with two LED’s to produce high-resolution images. The resolution is high enough to image particles as small as 0.5 microns, making it possible for bacteria and fossils to be visible. 

The camera is also able to take images across both the visible and ultraviolet spectrum, meaning it can detect fluorescence. In addition to the camera, the drill has sensors that detect humidity and temperature.

The Planetary Deep Drill. Courtesy of Honeybee Robotics.

The Planetary Deep Drill. Courtesy of Honeybee Robotics.

How do you drill on Mars?

Conventional drilling systems, such as those used for oil and gas, require operators to add weights at the top of the drill as it penetrates deeper into a surface. This method is simply unrealistic if it were to be used on Mars.

Luckily, Dr. Kris Zacny, Director of Exploration Technology at Honeybee Robotics, came up with a solution: a four-meter-long drill that can be raised and lowered using a long Kevlar tether. As the tether coils around a winch, the drill will go deeper below the surface.

The tether also provides the power and data links between the drill and the surface.

An anchor system inside the drill consists of three gripper shoes that pivot outward against the borehole. This design provides the necessary stability while the drill is in operation.

Underneath, a section referred to as the Z Stage extends and lengthens the drill by 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) per drilling session. One drilling session takes approximately half an hour.

Why do we need a drill with this much power?

The Planetary Deep Drill provides access to otherwise inaccessible samples, which can then be used to depict geological formations and detect trace amounts of organic materials.

The need for this drill was highlighted in February 2013 when the Curiosity rover drilled into the surface of Mars.

Powder analyzed from the borehole consisted of clays and sulfate minerals. Researchers were led to believe that Curiosity was on top of what was once a lake bed, since sulfate minerals only form when near low-acidity water. This discovery is only more significant now that liquid water has been found on Mars.

These results were found only five centimeters (2 inches) beneath the planet’s surface.

Imagine what the Planetary Deep Drill could find kilometers below the surface?

A drill with these capabilities will provide researchers with the opportunity to finally discover what lays below the Martian polar caps and beneath Europa’s icy crust.

Field Trials Testing the Extraterrestrial Drill

Field trials are taking place at the United States Gypsum quarry in the California desert. During these field trials, engineers are targeting to drill down to a depth of 100 feet.

This will test the major functions of the drill and provide data for future improvements.

The drill was built by Honeybee Robotics, and the project is supported by the Planetary Society, NASA, The American Museum of Natural History and USG Corporation.

Honeybee has made inquiries about mission concepts where the drill would be housed upright inside a capsule, comparable to SpaceX’s Dragon.

If this is possible, the drill would have the ability to punch through the hull and heat shield after landing. Then it would begin to tunnel into the surface.

So, once NASA has acquired their Mars drilling sample, the question becomes, “how do you get it back to Earth?”

Watch Bill Nye the Science Guy, CEO of the Planetary Society, express how it might be done.

For more information on the Mars mission and the Planetary Deep Drill, visit NASA’s website.

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