NASA has admitted that their Curiosity rover could destroy its own electronics system when it begins using its percussive drill to mine Mars rock samples. The flaw has been known about by the space agency since before it even left Earth.
The late discovery of a prone-to-failure bond in the drilling mechanism forced the Jet Propulsion Team responsible for the rover to implement a potential workaround, after realizing that if the bond breaks, an electrical short could zap all of the rover’s computer systems.
Ron Manning, chief engineer on the Curiosity project, told Space:
“Unless you do something about it, all hell breaks loose electronically, because it takes our power bus and rattles it around. It’s almost like the drill grabs the rover and shakes the whole thing electronically.”
It is not likely that the flaw will affect the planned two-year duration of Curiosity’s mission in exploring Mars, however, beyond that the problem is likely to show itself. The Jet Propulsion Team at NASA says that it plans to continue remotely operating Curiosity for as long as it is scientifically feasible, after the original goals of the mission have been met.
The rover’s drill is an essential part of the mission, and gives Curiosity the ability to dig up to an inch into the Martian rock. To date, samples have been taken by scraping sections of the Martian topsoil. The drill is due to be implemented by the end of the year, once a suitable location has been found.
The space agency’s workaround for the shorting issue involves using a second wiring loom, which preemptively shorts the rover’s power bus before any significant damage can be done. This system was implemented just “a month or two” before Curiosity began its journey through space to Mars in November 2011.