Patrick Harkness – Space Engineering

Dr Patrick HarknessThe University has launched an ambitious space technology research programme which will focus on expanding its existing expertise in space-related science and engineering.

The initiative is coordinated by Space Systems Engineering lecturer Dr Patrick Harkness whose research, alongside Professor Margaret Lucas, includes the development of a new form of ultrasonic drill, which could make it easier for unmanned probes to explore planets such as Mars.

Evidence of flowing water, or even microbial life, could well be found beneath the red planet’s surface by robots equipped with digging tools. However, designing a drill suitable for digging into the planet’s surface soil, rock and ice presents a series of unusual challenges.

‘The gravity on Mars is around a third of what we experience here on Earth,’ explains Dr Harkness, ‘which means that it’s much harder to exert the kind of force required to press a conventional drillbit into any given surface. To get around that problem, we’ve developed a high-frequency ultrasonic drill, which creates a hammering action and cuts through hard surfaces much more easily.’

A prototype version of the ultrasonic drill was mounted on a Mars rover prototype developed by EADS Astrium and trialled in Tenerife on rocky terrain similar to that found on Mars.

According to Dr Harkness, this ultrasonic drill technology could also be adapted for medical applications: ‘One of the main features of the ultrasonic drilling technique is that it cuts very well through hard surfaces but is much less effective on soft surfaces, which could make it an ideal method for surgeons to cut through bone without affecting the soft tissue around it. It could also make the process of taking bone marrow samples considerably easier.’

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First published: 25 March 2015