Life Outside Earth? NASA Hopes Mars Rover Will Start Drilling On Red Planet Again

10_24_Mars Curiosity rover
In this handout provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS This self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the 'Mojave' site, where its drill collected the mission's second taste of Mount Sharp. The scene combines dozens of images taken during January 2015 by the MAHLI camera at the end of the rover's robotic arm. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images

For the first time in nearly a year, NASA's Mars rover touched the surface of the planet. Although it may be months before Curiosity is potentially able to drill again, the October 17 test run provided hope that things are moving in the right direction.

Thanks to a new technique—called feed-extended drilling—the car-sized rover was able to move its 7-foot long arm onto the ground of the red planet without help from a pair of stabilizers, which the old method relied on. The milestone marks the first instance where the drill bit was placed "directly on a Martian rock without stabilizers," Douglas Klein, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

In August 2012, Curiosity first landed on Mars' 96-mile-wide Gale Crater. Six months later, it successfully drilled into the ground for the first time. Since then, the rover has been able to collect rock samples a total of 15 times. But, the drilling came to an end in December 2016 when the rover started to not respond to drill commands. This malfunction forced researchers to brainstorm new ways to continue drilling, which is how the "feed-extended" method came about.

"The development work and testing here at JPL has been promising," Steve Lee, deputy project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement. "The next step is to assess the force/torque sensor on Mars. We've made tremendous progress in developing feed-extended drilling, using the rover's versatile capabilities beyond the original design concepts. While there are still uncertainties that may complicate attempts to drill on Mars again, we are optimistic."

Even if drilling doesn't work out, there's still much to be done by Curiosity, Lee pointed out, stating that there's other "productive investgations" that don't require digging into the planet.

In the rover's five years on Mars, it has completed an extensive list of tasks that have taught those back on Earth a lot about the history of the planet and whether life on Mars may one day be possible. Curiosity is currently exploring Vera Rubin Ridge, a 20-story-tall landform, according to Space.com.

Curious what life looks like through the rover's eyes? You can now wander around Mars through the comfort of your own home, thanks to a new virtual tour tool called Access Mars. The 3-D terrain map lets you explore everywhere the Curiosity has been, all accessible via your mobile device or desktop browser.

Life Outside Earth? NASA Hopes Mars Rover Will Start Drilling On Red Planet Again | Tech & Science