NASA Remotely Hacks Curiosity’s Rock Drill

We have a lot of respect for the hackers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). When their stuff has a problem, it is often millions of miles away and yet they often find a way to fix it anyway. Case in point is the Curiosity Mars rover. Back in 2016, the probe’s rock drill broke. This is critical because one of the main things the rover does is drill into rock samples, collect the powder and subject it to analysis. JPL announced they had devised a way to successfully drill again.

The drill failed after fifteen uses. It uses two stabilizers to steady itself against the target rock. A failed motor prevents the drill bit from retracting and extending between the stabilizers. Of course, sending a repair tech 60 million miles is not in the budget, so they had to find another way. You can see a video about the way they found, below.

NASA calls what happened “MacGyvering.” The drill bit is fully extended at all times. Now the rover has to use the entire arm to push the drill forward and recenter without the stabilizers. The arm has a force sensor made to detect if the arm strikes something. That sensor now has a new purpose, to monitor the progress of the drilling.

There’s still one more piece of the puzzle to solve. Since the drill no longer retracts, it can’t deliver the payload of rock powder to the onboard laboratories. Since the drill has a percussion mechanism, they’ve figured out a way to “tap out” the powder in their mockup here on Earth. They’ll be testing how well it works on Mars soon. If we were gamblers, we’d bet they will figure it out.

64 thoughts on “NASA Remotely Hacks Curiosity’s Rock Drill

  1. I know that there are people moaning and crying about all the money that is spent on another planet instead of fixing things here. BUT … I really, really like how those girls and guys figure out solutions for problems they cannot lay their hands on (literally). AND I love how things go wrong even for the most professionally trained, well prepared and expensively paid scientists.
    It somehow makes breaking a drill in the garage less of a personal failure.

      1. And really well engineered and tested hardware to begin with. Plus it’s open source and you have the code. Oh and you have a well educated team where money and time is almost not an issue.

          1. When the thing’s on Mars, you probably wouldn’t try many HaD ideas because you only really get one shot. If, for example, you break the drill bit for some reason, you can’t exactly send the rover to the nearest hardware store to get them to fit a new one.
            These scientists/engineers develop a solution knowing all the constraints that we don’t.

    1. As someone who has worked for a NASA contractor several times, it is always funny to me how much people think we spend on space compared to what we actually do spend.

      This is a good read:

      From that post:

      For all it does, NASA receives just 0.4 percent of the $4.407 trillion FY 2019 federal budget. Compare that to the Department of Defense. Its budget is $597 billion, or 13 percent of the total. DoD’s budget would pay for 30 NASA departments.

      NASA also receives less than any of these other six departments.

      Health and Human Services – $69.5 billion.
      Veterans Administration – $83.1 billion.
      Education – $59.9 billion.
      Homeland Security – $46.0 billion
      Housing and Urban Development – $29.2 billion.
      State Department – $28.3 billion.

      1. Well…
        National Defense is in the Constitution, unlike the other budgetary things you mentioned.
        Granted, much of our Defense money is spent in needless wars in Asia.

        1. …and?

          Are you saying that because some people hundreds of years ago thought that it was necessary to explicitly state that we had to spend money to defend a fledgling country (something the Articles of Confederation failed to enforce), it has to be the largest portion of the budget? If I miss your point – what are you trying to say here?

          1. “Welfare, social security, education, housing were [are] handled quite adequately”
            I don’t think you will find a point in this country’s history (or any) where this is true, regardless of government intervention.

            As one who was educated through government funding, you seem to belittle your own education.

      2. Ray Bradbury wrote an essay, it may have been published in Omni decades ago.
        In it, he asked us (US) to spend a little (1% or so) for space exploration. For we always need to look further, look ahead.
        For if we were to eliminate hunger, thirst, poverty, without looking towards the stars, in the end, we would find ourselves…

      3. Imagine your average car since it’s an object that costs millions to design (most of which goes on engineer salaries) yet the final product costs a few tens of thousands of dollars even after allowing for a profit to be made. The money spent paying engineers isn’t lost, engineers buy things. Say you buy the car and toss it into the sea, the valuable materials that make up the car have been lost but not all that engineering time, plus who cares, you already paid for the thing and car dealers also buy things using your money.

        A NASA probe launch is exactly the same. The only thing lost by hurling a hunk of metal into deep space is a hunk of metal, which may have a value here on earth at launch time but that value has been paid.

        1. Pretty sure in the automobile realm, shareholders get paid a lot more than engineers. They also don’t need to spend money on consumables like engineers do. Or pay the same tax rates.

          Plus, the marginal engineering cost for one physical car off the assembly line is almost zero compared to the marginal cost of one engineered and custom built spacecraft, which literally might be hundreds of millions of dollars.

          Ironically, spacecraft largely lack economy of scale.

          1. Do they really? E.g. Volkswagen spent 13 billion on R&D in 2017 and paid just 2 billion dividends to shareholders. But of course not all R&D people are engineers, and not all engineers are in R&D, and not all profit is paid in dividends.

          2. Oh sure we can make them cheaper to engineer. My point is that we’re not “tossing money into space”.What we are tossing into space is in curiosity’s case some silicon, a few hundred kilos of iron, etc. The raw material costs of a satellite are low and that’s what leaves our gravity well. The billions of dollars spent to process those raw materials into something useful stay behind.

            I’ve heard one too many idiot acting like there’s a vault on board each satellite with billions in dollar bills stuffed into it.

      4. [mike], recall that war and space exploration are both technology incubators. You are looking for “direct” benefits, e.g. “a book on Mars told us how to beat cancer”. Those are few and far between (I can’t think of any offhand). However, there are other indirect benefits which do help us here on Earth.

        Here ( ) is a Wikipedia article on some notable products which resulted directly or indirectly from NASA research needed to execute space missions. A few highlights I like: Correction algorithms for GPS signal errors, which are used by self-driving tractors to grow food more effectively, solar panels (of course – they make extensive use of the tech), water purification & air scrubbers (of course – that’s what you need to survive in a tin can in space), tons of open-source software including structural analysis software, powdered (solid) lubricants,which have all kinds of benefits over fluid ones, bettery baby food (of all things), shock absorbers that automatically disconnect electricity and fuel sources from buildings during an earthquate, fire-resistant materials, the CMOS camera sensor (so: pretty much all digital cameras), better car tires, “space blankets” (a part of most first-aid kits, keeps you remarkably warm and takes up vanishingly little space), invisible braces (“Invisalign” was the first brand of them, I think), LASIK (I benefited from this one personally), the ventricular assist device, and the infrared thermometer.

        In case you’d like something more than the Wikipedia page, here’s the spinoffs homepage ( ) and their searchable database of technology which has spread to benefit people here on Earth: .

        So, [mike], you can get this kind of technology development from war or from space exploration (or you might be able to get them if you wait a long time – but a lot of these ideas came from the often-unique challenges of space travel). Me, I’ll happily give 0.4% of my taxes to space exploration rather than holding on to them – NASA will do more good with that cash for me and those around me than I will!

        1. Most of the “spinoff” of NASA technologies are merely slapping the NASA sticker on technologies that already existed and were looking for a use or some minor improvement. They would have found it regardless, and NASA simply beat everyone else to the punch.

        2. “the CMOS camera sensor”

          Note that the very similiar MOS camera sensor already existed despite NASA as an idea and in practice back in 1968, but it was too difficult (expensive) to manufacture because the MOS process was too variable and the results were unstable in operation.

          It took until late 1980’s until the CMOS process was properly established in the industry well enough that you could actually manufacture acceptable quality CMOS imaging sensors on the cheap. Since the technology to make them was in place, NASA hired people like Erik Fossum to design them a camera on a chip based on the earlier ideas using the newer CMOS technology. The results were then transferred to the US industry.

          Meanwhile, the industry didn’t initially have any use for the CMOS sensor because it was still much inferior to CCD sensors, so it took about 15 more years and independent development by the industry to come up with a proper rival that we use today in all the cellphones – although many would still prefer the CCD because it doesn’t have the rolling shutter problem.

      5. If you truly feel that way, please refrain from all of the technology that exists as a direct result of NASA. As you are likely unaware of these things, here are some of them:

        I would say to let me know when you’ve accomplished your abstention from NASA-generated technology, but, well, that would mean that you weren’t using your computer. Perhaps a carrier pigeon? Do you know smoke signals? Perhaps you could send a telegram…

      6. “Spending billions to find out this little piece of useless knowledge benefits mankind 0.0%. The people of this planet would benefit far more, if nasa’s playing around on other planets was shutdown, and the money diverted to renewable energy solutions was put in place, now that would benefit all.”

        Even if we don’t directly benefit we also tend to do things just because we can and because we like doing them. I would guess that the percentage of your income that is spend on things that aren’t directly benefitting mankind is way larger.

        “All nasa is are smart people that never grew up. Like little kids wondering “whats out there” , ” where did we come from” Who friggen cares!”

        The USA would never have been a country if not someone had asked ‘what is out there?’ and got on a boat to find out.

      7. Compare NASA budget to the money spent on useless comic superhero movies, useless sports, useless computer games, useless cat videos, or your own useless education.

      8. I always find it interesting to hear about how Nasa is wasting money in Space.
        Reality is, that money goes right back into the economy. Payments to contractors to pay workers, paychecks for employees, purchases of goods and services, all go to people who use it to buy food, clothes etc.
        No money ends up in space. It all stays here. None is gone from circulation, it keeps the economy moving.

        1. It would be a lot cheaper to just give the people the money rather than go through the whole cock and pony show, blowing up actual resources into the sky.

          So yes, “money” ends up in space, since the waste of effort that NASA represents also means that prices elsewhere are higher to supply the additional demand. All money in circulation eventually returns to something tangible like gasoline, electricity, concrete, or turnips – that’s why economy for economy’s sake is a fool’s errand.

    2. “I know that there are people moaning and crying about all the money that is spent on another planet ”

      Yes… well… those people are morons. There ideas are counterproductive. The money that is spent on space exploration is nothing compared to the money that IS spent here on Earth. If that money were redirected towards one of the moron’s favorite cause it would do exactly nothing for improving that cause. The effect would be not unlike pouring a glass of water into the ocean. It’s nothing.

      And yet with all the spinoff technologies and even what is learned just for the sake of knowing… humanity gets more bang for the buck from NASA then moron’s pet cause for sure!

      1. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t half-assed. Not half-assed on NASAs part, but on the country in general. We put enough so we can say we have a space program, but not enough to really reaping the benefits a full fledged space program would bring.

        Sad to say there’s only two ways space will succeed, capitalism (OPEC in space), or war with an alien species. Certainly not the joy of discovery.

    3. >I know that there are people moaning and crying about all the money that is spent on another planet instead

      those people are idiots, its not like we buy spacecraft from mars. all that money goes directly into the local economies of the contractors that build the damn things.

    4. You know, if we could somehow get our collective shit together and have say 4 billion people working on things out there, and the rest say supporting those 4 billions doing science, there wouldn’t be much need to fix shit here because there wouldn’t be any shit.

  2. I remember a Scientific American paper a (long) while ago about the Voyager 2 probe, and how NASA worked around the failures so the probe had a BETTER PERFORMANCE than when it lift off… As a humble engineer I salute you guys.

  3. Akins Laws of Spacecraft Design #2: To design a spacecraft right takes an infinite amount of effort. This is why it’s a good idea to design them to operate when some things are wrong.

  4. That’s pretty cool, though it seems like it took them a very long time to figure it out, when – as far as I’m aware – robotic drilling on earth is usually done with the arm?

    1. I don’t know because all the work I have done has been on manned programs. But my guess is they had to test/test/test/retest and test because you can’t screw it up. If you go to JSC where they do the lunar rocks they will actually make models of the rocks and cut them before actually cutting into the real rocks. That and the paperwork means a year doing something like this is actually warp speed.

      1. [excrement] happens.
        I think of the Mars rover that got a rock stuck in one of its wheels. They attempted to shake/rock/jar it loose to no effect. They ended up driving the rover backwards, dragging its stuck wheel.

  5. I remember someone telling me long ago, that (some?) spacecraft circuits are designed to operate with polarity reversed. To reverse dendritic growth or other measures. As well as bypass defective circuits.

  6. So the actuator which extends the drill, it broke. Their solution was to not use it, just go slower, be more careful…
    Who’s starting the GoFundMe for these heroes?

    1. It’s a complete rewrite of the control system, using new actuators and new forms of feedback, none of which was designed for the purpose, in a context where any miscalculation means sample collection is done for good.

    2. “slower, be more careful”

      Well.. that’s one way to simplify adding force-sensitive kinematics into a section that was implicitly designed to just do course drop-placement prior. But hey, if they screw-up, pun intended, no biggie. The drill will just break and they can go down to the hardware store for a replacement and.. oh.. nvm

      1. I speak on the behalf of everyone who understands the meaning of those words; it hurts to read your sentence.
        Please elaborate on how they added “force-sensitive kinematics”. Be extremely detailed.
        BTW Shit already hit the fan. This is a last-ditch effort. And all they did was test a few techniques to see what was less likely to break the bit. “Pre-drilling” while advancing VERY slowly, and not drilling as deep, was the winner.

  7. Could they drill sideways into the swarf to try to pick up some sample material in between the flutes of the drillbit? Then reverse the drill direction to deposit the swarf in the sample chamber?

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