Technology

Drilling on Mars

 By Sandeep Ravindran

Eni is involved in the ExoMars space mission by the European and Russian Space Agencies, developing a drilling system to explore Martian soil. Mars’s weak atmosphere doesn’t offer much protection from radiation and sunlight, so organic molecules are more likely to have been preserved underground than on the surface. The Rover will search for these molecules to see if they provide any hints that life existed on the planet

Recent missions to Mars have provided us with a wealth of information about the planet, but we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. A new mission by the European and Russian Space Agencies plans to dig a little deeper. By drilling into Martian soil, the mission will offer a peek under the planet’s surface, and search for signs of life.

The ExoMars mission will deliver a Mars Rover to the planet to drill for and collect samples. Mars’s weak atmosphere doesn’t offer much protection from radiation and sunlight, so organic molecules are more likely to have been preserved underground than on the surface. The Rover will search for these molecules to see if they provide any hints that life existed on the planet.

The Rover is expected to collect at least 17 different samples for analysis during the mission. An onboard analytical laboratory will crush the samples to a fine powder and examine their chemical, physical and spectral properties, identifying any organic molecules present. The drill also includes a miniaturized infrared spectrometer, a device used to figure out the physical and chemical properties of the borehole itself.

It was challenging to create a drill that could work well despite the low temperature and pressure on the Martian surface. Eni-owned Tecnomare used its expertise in drilling a different inhospitable environment—the seabed—to contribute to build the drill, which can extract samples from depths of up to 2 m (6.5 ft). It consists of multiple components, with a 0.7-m (2.3-ft) drill as well as three extension rods of 0.5 m (1.6 ft) each. The extension rods are attached to the drill when it needs to extend to its full length, and disassembled after a sample is recovered.

The ExoMars Rover’s drill has been tested extensively in preparation for its odyssey to the red planet. During the tests, the drill was able to collect samples in Mars-like temperature and pressure conditions, and could also automatically assemble itself to its full length and collect samples up to a depth of 2 m (6.5 ft).

Technology will play a critical role in the ExoMars mission’s ability to unearth the mysteries that lie beneath the planet’s soil. In the future it may even lead to benefits much closer to home, as the technology could be adapted to improve oil and gas exploration here on Earth.

 

This is how explorations robotics in Mars work

Mars exploration rover
about the author
Sandeep Ravindran
I've covered a variety of science & tech for outlets such as Popular Science, NationalGeographic.com, and Wired.com. Science communication degree from UC Santa Cruz, microbiology PhD from Stanford. https://sandeepr.contently.com/