Magazine article ASEE Prism

Robots Know the Drill on Mars

Magazine article ASEE Prism

Robots Know the Drill on Mars

Article excerpt

If a team of geologists were working in a desert here on Earth, they would chisel and hammer the rocks they wanted to study, because it's the interior of the rocks that contains useful clues. So next year, when NASA sends two rover vehicles to explore the Red Planet, their robotic arms will each be fitted with a Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) designed to scrape away 5 millimeters of the planet's dust-coated, oxidized rind and reveal to scientists on Earth the mysteries within, "We're trying to replicate what a geologist in the desert would do," explains Mame McCutchin, spokesperson for Honeybee Robotics of New York, which designed and built the highly specialized drills. Geologists hope the mission will provide a climate history of Mars and help determine if any life forms exist there. It may also offer data that helps explain how life developed on Earth.

Final assembly of the RATs is now underway at Honeybee Robotics' lower Manhattan headquarters. The drills, which are each roughly the size of a beer can, weigh about 1.7 pounds and utilize a pair of diamond matrix wheels to handle the dirty work. Because there is limited power available, they are low-force, high-speed drills that require only about 10 watts of power. "That's less than your average light bulb," McCutchin notes. The drills also have to be ready for the unknown. "No one knows how hard the rock will be," she explains. Or how soft, for that matter. Also, after eons of flying around, its particles slamming into one another in a waterless environment, Mars' dust is very fine. …

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