The Mars rover Curiosity appears to be suffering intermittent short circuits in its robotic arm, which could limit its drilling of rocks, NASA stated earlier last week.
The problem cropped up on Feb. 27 when sensors on the rover observed a surge of current. The rover automatically stopped what it was doing and waited for further instructions from Earth.
Curiosity had been in the middle of shaking a sample of rock powder, preparing to deliver it to an onboard chemical laboratory. That same process was used without a problem in five drilling efforts in 2013 and 2014.
In a first test after the power surge, the rover retraced its steps up to the shaking. There were no problems.
The results of a second test arrived Thursday. The drill repeated the up-and-down motion 180 times and a small surge, lasting a fraction of a second, occurred during the third stroke.
The problem does not imperil the $2.5 billion mission, and the next step is to repeat the tests so that engineers can better determine the extent and severity.
If the surges of current are small enough, “we might feel comfortable with just using it until it stops moving,” Mr. Erickson said.
Even if the hammering mechanism failed, the drill would still work, though it might not be able to penetrate harder rocks.
So far, that would have not been a major complication. “The rocks are pretty soft in the areas we’ve seen,” Mr. Erickson said.
Other scientific instruments not on the arm have continued observations, and the rest of the rover is not affected.
Curiosity is at the base of an 18,000-foot-tall mountain. The rocks are made of layers of sediment dating to an era when Mars appears to have been warm and wet, and as the rover climbs the mountain, scientists hope that changes in the rocks will help them understand how the planet’s climate changed over time.
The mission team plans to resume moving the rover’s arm as early as next week.