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Mars Curiosity rover's labs are working, testing samples again

By Brooks Hays
Mars Curiosity rover's labs are working, testing samples again
The Curiosity rover's drill successfully delivered a sample of powdered rock to its mineralogy lab for the first time in more than a year. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

June 5 (UPI) -- The mini testing labs built into the core of NASA's Curiosity rover are back up and running, testing rock samples collected by its newly functional drill.

According to NASA, one of the rover's onboard labs analyzed a drilled rock sample for the first time in more than a year.

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"This was no small feat. It represents months and months of work by our team to pull this off," Jim Erickson, project manager of the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release.

The Curiosity mission is part of the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

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In 2016, the rover's drill encountered a crippling mechanical problem. Engineers at NASA spent more than a year developing a workaround drilling technique called Feed Extended Drilling, or FED, which uses the rover's robotic arm to direct and push the drill into the ground as the drill bit spins. Once FED proved successful, Curiosity engineers added percussion, or a hammering rhythm.

Late last month, the rover used it's newly function drill to collect rock samples for the first time in nearly two years.

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This week, those rock samples were successfully delivered to and processed by the rover's mineralogy lab. Later this week, scientists hope to have Curiosity deliver rock samples to its chemistry lab.

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Because the rover's drilling arm is now permanently extended to accommodate its new drilling technique, Curiosity can't use all of its components to ensure the proper amount of powdered rock is delivered to the labs. Too much powder can clog instrumentation, while too little powder will fail to yield meaningful results.

But as they did for the drill, researchers back on Earth developed and tested a workaround sample delivery strategy. Early indications suggest their solution was successful. NASA engineers plan to continue tweaking the sample delivery method in the months ahead.

"The science team was confident that the engineers would deliver -- so confident that we drove back to a site that we missed drilling before. The gambit paid off, and we now have a key sample we might have never gotten," said Ashwin Vasavada of JPL, the mission's project scientist. "It's quite remarkable to have a moment like this, five years into the mission. It means we can resume studying Mount Sharp, which Curiosity is climbing, with our full range of scientific tools."

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