ExoMars Will be Drilling 1.7 Meters to Pull its Samples From Below the Surface of Mars

The Rosalind Franklin rover will leave for Mars in about one year (Sept. 20, 2021). Rosalind Franklin is the latest mission of the Roscosmos ExoMars program and ESAs. She will be joining the small army orbiters, landers and rovers working to understand the Martian atmosphere. The rovers mission will include drilling into Martian soil and rocks and collecting samples from below the surface.
ESA, Italy's space agency (ASI), as well as their commercial partners, have conducted tests using a replica of the aka in preparation for drilling operations on Mars. Ground Test Model (GTM). The Mars Terrain Simulation (MTS) was the first round of sample collection that the test model underwent. In a record-breaking feat, the rover dug into hard rock and extracted samples as far as 1.7 meters (5.5 feet below the surface).

MTS operations will be held at the Rover Operations Control Center, (ROCC), which is located at the Aerospace Logistics Technology Engineering Company's (ALTEC) premises in Turin. These dry runs serve as a rehearsal for real-world operations, which are being conducted in parallel to prepare for launch next year.

The ROCC in Turin, Italy tests the GTM. Credit: ESA

The GTM dug into a well containing various soil and rocks layers to test Rosalind Franklin's performance on the Red Planet. To simulate the collection of samples on varied terrain, this is done on a specially tilted platform. The first sample was made from medium-solid cement clay blocks and was approximately 2 cm in length and 1 cm wide (0.787 x 0.39 inch).

Rosalind Franklins drill collects the sample and retains it with a shutter to prevent it from being lost during retrieval. After the drill has been completely retract, the sample can be dropped into the drawer at the front of the Rover. This closes the drawer and the sample is placed into a crushing station. The powder is then sent to ovens or containers that are designed for scientific analysis.

The GTM set a new record in sample collection by drilling to a depth 1.7 meters. This is the deepest Mars mission has ever drilled to date. Rosalind Franklin's rover can drill to a depth of 2 meters (6.5 feet) below the Martian surface. This is in order to access any organic material that may have migrated there between 4 billion and 5 billion years ago.

Mars' surface conditions were comparable to those that existed on Earth at the same time. After the successes of missions such as the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, which provided compelling evidence of water and organics on Mars' surface, scientists were eager to look beneath the surface to determine if that is where Mars water, and perhaps life, might have gone.

The GMT test for drilling soil and rock samples at the ROCC Italy. Credit: ESA

ExoMars 2022's long-awaited, successful soil collection from hard stones and its delivery to the laboratory within the rover is a significant milestone in Mars exploration. As ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago described:

ExoMars primary science objective is to collect reliable samples from deep soil. This allows ExoMars to examine the chemical composition of soil and any signs of life that may have occurred if it has not been exposed to harmful ionizing radiation.

Leonardo, an aerospace company, developed the drill. It also helped to create the ROCC along with ASI, ESA and Thales Alenia Spa (prime contractor for ExoMars 2022). The Rosalind Franklin drill uses an automated assembly of mechanisms. It rotates by fitting tools and extends to form a drillstring that can drill to depths of up to 2m (6.5 feet).

It also features a two-degree positioner, which allows it to place samples at the correct angle in the laboratory. The drill can penetrate the ground at 60 rotations/minute depending on the soil consistency and can dig into clay materials and sandy rocks at a rate between 0.3 and 30mm (0.012 inches to 1.18 inches per minute), respectively.

Pietro Baglioni, ExoMars rover team lead, said that the drilling process was so complicated that the first deep drilling for the team is an incredible achievement.

The test results must accurately simulate Martian conditions. This is another challenge. To replicate the effects of Martian gravity (38% less than Earth's (0.38 g), the GMT must be suspended from a ceiling-mounted gravity compensation device. However, gravity is not the only environmental challenge a robot rover will face once it reaches Mars.

Andrea Merlo is an ExoMars Rover functional engineering engineer at Thales Alenia Space.

It is difficult to drill hard stones down to two meters using a mobile platform on wheels that produces less than 100 watts. This gives engineers an idea of how Mars could be affected.

The GTM has also completed other tests to assess the rovers abilities, including drilling operations. These tests include the ability to move and identify potential scientific targets, as well as acquire data and images. These dry runs were initiated in June 2021. They have proven that Rosalind Franklin is capable of following precise trajectories to survey the subsurface and surface environments.

The rover will use its advanced suite cameras, spectrometers and sub-surface sounding radar to search for evidence of life on Mars.

Additional Reading on the ESA