NASA researchers are figuring out a way to get the Mars Rover Curiosity to start digging for samples again. Between 2013 to 2015, Curiosity used its drill to collect samples from the Martian surface fifteen times. The bit was extended with a feed mechanism within the drill, which stopped functioning regularly in 2016. In December 2016, NASA halted Curiosity's trek up a hill to troubleshoot the drill, but the problem cropped up again after the engineers thought that they had fixed the problem.
On 17 October 2017, the Rover's team cautiously touched the bit to the Martian surface, and moved it sideways to measure the forces on the bit through a sensor on the arm. The sensor in question may help Curiosity regain its ability to drill and collect samples from beneath the surface of Mars, without the use of the feed mechanism. A close twin of the Curiosity Rover, on Earth is being used to test the feasibility of using the drill by only using the sensor. The sensor was originally developed to stop operations of the drill for an entire day on the detection of unusually large forces.
Deputy Project Manager Steve Lee, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) says, "The development work and testing here at JPL has been promising. The next step is to assess the force/torque sensor on Mars. We've made tremendous progress in developing feed-extended drilling, using the Rover's versatile capabilities beyond the original design concepts. While there are still uncertainties that may complicate attempts to drill on Mars again, we are optimistic."
The drill has been a problem for scientists even when it was working, as it has the potential to contaminate the Red Planet with microbes from Earth, if it encounters water during its drilling. Irrespective of whether Curiosity manages to use its drill again, NASA's InSight mission which is to be launched in 2018 will be equipped with a drill that will reach far into the interiors of Mars to a degree never explored before.