MARTE: Technology development and lessons learned from a Mars drilling mission simulation



The NASA Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) performed a field test simulating a robotic drilling mission on Mars in September 2005. The experiment took place in Minas de Riotinto in southwestern Spain, a highly relevant Mars analog site. The experiment utilized a 10 m class dry auger coring drill, a robotic core sample handling system, onboard science and life detection instruments, and a borehole inspection probe, all of which were mounted to a simulated lander platform. Much of the operation of the system was automated, and the resulting data were transmitted via satellite to remote science teams for analysis. The science team used the data to characterize the subsurface geology and to search for signs of life. Based on the data being received and operational constraints, the science team also directed the daily operation of the equipment. The experiment was highly successful, with the drill reaching over 6 m in depth in 23 days of simulated mission. The science team analyzed remote sensing data obtained from 28 cores and detected biosignatures in 12 core subsamples. This experiment represents an important first step in understanding the technology and operational requirements for a future Mars drilling mission. In the past there have been numerous rover field tests that have helped guide the design and implementation of the highly successful rover missions to Mars. However, a drilling mission potentially adds a new level of complexity, and it is important to understand the associated challenges. This paper documents the design of the experimental system, highlighting some of the more important design criteria and design trades. It also discusses the results of the field testing and lists some of the key technological lessons learned. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.