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Curiosity Rover Drill "Danger", "Flaw" and "Malfunction": Not So

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After watching a video interview I conducted last week with Robert Manning, Curiosity's Chief Engineer, which posted to Space.com, some viewers were left with the impression that the drill on the rover's arm will fail sometime around the culmination of the primary mission or before. This is not correct.

This tale has now propagated across the web and has, as with the NPR piece of two weeks ago about the "Earthshaking" discovery on Mars, gotten more dramatic with each telling. As it reads now: the drill is deeply flawed and will fail any minute! As the producer of the video that started this new conversation about the drill, I'm here to tell you: it ain't so.

While there were some statements in Rob Manning's interview that might have given this impression when taken out of context, a full viewing of the original interview makes it very clear that the problem is well understood and has been dealt with, as much as anything remote can be dealt with. Note to internet news: JPL is aware of it, on top of it, and has prepared for it.

After this story began to grow wings (or horns), I spoke to Manning for about an hour to clarify things. He described the origins of the issue and the situation as it stands today.

First of all, the tests that revealed the potential fault in the drill, all of which were performed on a ground test unit, are akin to what the automotive industry would call a "torture test." The percussion drill on that test rover was run for dozens of hours before issues surfaced. And it was an older, less robust design than the one that flew on Curiosity. In Martian operations, with an improved and brand-new drill, it will take at least two years if not longer to reach this kind of accumulated run-time.

The drill could easily outlast other parts of the rover... not that there are any expectations of other failures (just in case anyone might get the wrong idea).

Second, the stories across the Internet were propagated from a short written article based on my Manning video interview. Much of the context was lost in translation. The electrical fault, so earnestly and honestly reported by Manning, is a potential intermittent short that, if it occurs, will probably be localized to the arm. If it affects more of the system, it is still unlikely to cause any permanent issues with the electrical system of the rover. Engineers are continuing to test techniques to make the electrical system of the rover more fault-tolerant, which will reduce the chance of "inboard" damage from a drill electrical problem to other systems greatly. Let's give credit where credit is due- these are smart people.

Finally, the unfortunate title of the of the piece (which was not mine; it was added later) would lead some to believe that a faulty unit was knowingly flown in blatant disregard of stated mission goals. This could not be further from the truth. While the fault was diagnosed on the test rover shortly before launch, tests were quickly run to assure that any fault, if it exists on the flight drill, would not be catastrophic. In addition, modifications were made to the drill and electrical system to assure that any potential risk was minimized. Again, these are smart folk and they know what they are doing- everything that could be done in the short time remaining before launch was done (just ask their families- they didn't see their loved ones for weeks).

JPL and its people have always done more with less. These are innovative folk, filled with a pioneering passion and endowed with great skills in their respective areas of endeavor. While there have been mistakes made in the past, as there are in any organization, their success rate in space has been very, very high and their hardware typically outlives its projected lifespan (the primary mission) by anywhere from five to ten times. Name another entity that so outstrips expectations, and all at a bargain price- JPL is at the narrow end of the NASA funding pipeline.

So let's all take a collective breath and look at this drill story for what it is: not much. The problem was announced to the public and news media when it was first diagnosed before Curiosity's launch, well over a year ago. This new discussion is merely an update of existing public knowledge. The truth is that continued testing and updates of mission plans continue to assure that the drill will operate as planned, when needed, for the primary mission and beyond.

Now let's go drill some rocks and get on with the exploration of Mars!