February 6, 2014 marks the 10-year anniversary of the first controlled excavation operations ever carried out on Martian rocks. First used for accessing the interior of a rock on February 6, 2004, the Rock Abrasion Tools (RATs), designed and built by Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms Corporation for the twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, provided scientists with the first-ever view into virgin rock on the planet. These grinding, clearing and excavation operations provided critical evidence that Mars once supported a habitable environment.
The first excavation operations using the Rock Abrasion Tool took place on sol 34 of the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit mission. Just over two weeks later, on February 23, 2004, the twin rover Opportunity deployed its RAT for the first time, on the other side of the planet. Since then, mission operators have used the RATs hundreds of times between the two MER rovers, for a total of 62 rock abrasion operations and 132 brushes—a technique to remove the pervasive dust from rocks of interest.
By grinding away at rock with a unique diamond-epoxy bit, the RATs provide planetary scientists with a window offering views of virgin rock of various types on Mars, beyond the weathered and dusty surface visible from prior missions. This has enabled new insight into the formation and geological history of the planet. Early operations were successful, and the productivity has continued throughout the MER mission. In its 10th year on Mars, Opportunity used the RAT on the “Esperance” rock, part of a site known as Cape York, to reveal some of the most significant evidence to date of rocks that formed in the presence of fresh water.
“When the first images of Spirit’s excavation arrived in early 2004, we were ecstatic,” said Stephen Gorevan, chairman and co-founder of Honeybee Robotics. “The RATs essentially turned the MER rovers into field geologists, which had never been done before. I never expected we would be so fortunate to be using the RATs for a decade, let alone deploying them in their tenth year to find some of the best evidence to date of a formerly habitable environment on Mars. In terms of both science and technical achievements, the MER rovers set the stage in many respects for the success of future Mars exploration missions.”
Building on the success of the MER mission’s contact geology experiments, NASA subsequently equipped the 2007 Phoenix Mars Lander and the 2011 Mars Science Laboratory with drilling systems to sample the composition of water ice and rocks, respectively. Honeybee Robotics contributed subsystems to both of these missions and is actively working on sampling, coring, and caching architectures that may be used on the Mars 2020 mission.
Follow this link for more information about Honeybee’s planetary sampling and drilling systems.