Tools for planetary exploration

The most tantalising secrets of Mars lie beneath its surface but, with gravity on the red planet only about 38% of gravity on Earth, it is difficult to exert the downward force necessary for deep exploration. Ultrasonic and percussive drills provide a solution.

“Low gravity means that the rover on which the drill is mounted has very little weight, making it difficult to press the drill firmly against the rock,” says Dr Patrick Harkness, Reader at the School of Engineering. “So, the next generation of Mars landers may need a new system for drilling into the surface soil, rock and ice. The drill needs to be able to penetrate rock with a low drilling force and have low electrical power consumption, and it needs to be simple to deploy remotely or robotically.”

The research team are developing drills which use high-frequency ultrasonic vibrations and percussive blows to fluidise regolith and cut through the terrain. This means that applied forces are lower, less power is required, and the support apparatus on the space vehicle can be scaled back and simplified.

Scientists believe that Mars was once much warmer and wetter than it appears today and evidence of flowing water, or even life, may be discovered deep below the surface. A new drill could be the key that unlocks this information and helps us learn more about the solar system’s past. In the meantime, our drills are already hard at work in one of the harshest of environments on Earth, drilling deep beneath the ice sheets of Antarctica to inform our understanding of climate change.