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Vol. 10, No. 46 Week of November 13, 2005
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

NASA readies drill for Mars

Researchers bring subsurface technology closer to application in outer space

By Rose Ragsdale

Petroleum News Contributing Writer

To the age-old question, “Is there life on Mars?” NASA scientists have added another equally intriguing one, “Are there resources on Mars?”

Now, an international team of researchers is closing in on drilling technology that could provide answers.

Scientists, academics and engineers, led by NASA Ames Research Center, are collaborating to perfect drilling hardware and software capable of traveling millions of miles to Mars and tunneling hundreds of feet beneath the red planet’s surface to extract core samples for analysis.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center Exploration Office in Houston collaborated with Baker-Hughes Inc. to develop hardware for a system suitable for drilling on Mars and the moon. Houston-based Baker-Hughes is participating in the project under a Space Act Agreement with NASA.

Known as the Mars/Arctic Deep Drill Project, the effort also involved faculty members from Canada’s McGill University in Montreal and the University of Toronto.

Tests of the drilling technology in the high Arctic and the desert Southwest have been conducted since 2003 and more tests are scheduled in years to come.

The University of California Berkeley is also conducting laboratory research into the physics of drilling under Martian conditions of pressure, temperature and atmospheric composition. The Lunar and Planetary Institute and the University of Texas, Austin, are collaborating in various aspects of this project.

Tests in Spain

Carol Stoker, principal investigator for another Ames test in Spain, used a Honeybee Robotics drill in cooperation with Spanish researchers at the Spanish Center for Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain to test end-to-end functionality of drilling software.

As part of the search for Mars-like conditions on earth, the three-year Marte project explored the Rio Tinto, a polluted, acidic river in Spain, for evidence of subsurface organisms and to develop expertise in drilling needed for the Mars mission. Marte is the Spanish word for Mars, and it is also an acronym for Mars Analog Rio Tinto Experiment.

Researchers drilled for core samples in the blood-red river and tested satellite links in preparation for Mars missions. The tests also offered astrobiologists a chance to look for exotic life in the Rio Tinto.

Arctic tests in Nunavut

Meanwhile, demonstrating a substantially automated, lightweight, low-power drill capable of acquiring uncontaminated core samples from tens of meters below the surface of Mars fell to the Johnson Space Center/Baker-Hughes team, according to Dr. Geoffrey Briggs, principal investigator for the project at Ames.

This team, aided by Canadian scientists, is conducting tests over three years in permafrost regions of the Canadian Arctic. The researchers completed a drill test in September 2004 on the Fosheim Peninsula of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut near the Eureka Weather Station, but a second round of Arctic tests scheduled for September had to be postponed to spring 2006.

Instead, the JSC team mounted the drill on a robotically driven two-seat rover and tele-operated it from NASA’s virtual cockpit in the back of a van, in Meteor Crater, Ariz., as part of NASA’s annual Desert Rats Expedition.

Drill may find water

The low power, low mass drilling system, which operates on power equivalent to a 100-watt light bulb, is a novel drilling approach that fulfilled two major objectives in the tests this fall, said Jeffrey George, manager of the project for Johnson Space Center.

“We showed it could work well on a rover, and we did remote-controlled drilling,” said George. JSC also acquired a core sample in the test and assessed the general performance of the drill.

“The test, limited in scope, was very successful,” said Briggs.

George said JSC researchers became interested in identifying and accessing resources on Mars and maybe the moon because they realized a discovery of water would enable space travelers to create an oxygen atmosphere, manufacture rocket fuel and grow food.

“We’re excited about how we will use the technology to explore the moon, first with robotic missions and then with humans,” he said.

“In addition to leveraging resources to travel farther into space, the drilling technology can confirm data on the ground now being collected by NASA with remote sensors,” George added.

A second permafrost field test of the drill, now planned for late April and early May 2006, will include ice and outcroppings of sandstone previously penetrated in 2004 at the Arctic drill site, about 700 miles from the North Pole, according to George.

“We will attempt to penetrate much more deeply than before when the drill remained anchored by pegs in the spud tube,” he explained.

Tests in vacuum next

Depending on logistical feasibility, the team also aims to drill into formations of the nearby Axel Heiberg Island, using the facilities of the McGill High Arctic Research Station.

Axel Heiberg may be even more analogous to ancient Mars than Ellesmere because the island has ice-covered lakes and active subsurface hydrothermal systems, George said.

The drilling system will need even more testing before it’s ready for Mars. “We need to build a third-generation prototype, test it in a vacuum, and then we will be ready to go,” George said. “We need a vacuum-capable prototype to better simulate conditions on Mars.”

Stoker’s team completed three years of field tests in September.

“We’ve never flown any kind of a robotic drill before. So, this is going to be one of those first steps of getting a system developed — a robotic system that can do drilling,” Stoker said.

Stoker estimates NASA’s drilling technology could be ready for a Mars mission in 2009.

“I think that we have brought this technology to the point where it could be considered for flight,” she said.

George said he believes a refined version of the third-generation JSC/BH drill will be ready to go, but offered no timeframe for a mission.

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A look at the NASA/Baker Hughes Mars Drill

Rose Ragsdale

The drill system adopts a wireline approach in which a bottomhole assembly anchors itself to the sides of the hole and, by means of a drive mechanism, exerts force on the bit from that location rather than from the top of the hole.

The drill, about one and three-quarter inches in diameter by seven feet long, is designed to acquire a sequential core in three- to six-inch segments from the bottom of the hole. This has obvious science benefits for subsequent sample analysis and also minimizes the amount of rock that must be pulverized, saving energy and minimizing possible thawing of samples collected.

A special hybrid bit, polycrystalline diamond compacts that can shear icy formations backed by diamonds impregnated in a matrix of cobalt (to take over when hard surfaces wear away the lower part of the bit), has been designed for effective drilling in both ice and rock.

The augur and other components of the drilling system also have been designed for conditions beneath the planet’s surface.

In the absence of drilling fluid (because of mass and tendency to contaminate samples), crushed material is moved upwards from the bit by means of an auger and collected in a container on top of the core barrel. When the core barrel is full, the core is broken off and the core and cuttings are winched to the surface where the cuttings are dumped and the core retrieved for analysis.

The wireline approach simplifies the process of lowering and raising the bottomhole assembly multiple times since it is not necessary to assemble and disassemble a conventional drill string each time.

The cable is much lighter than a drill string and increasing hole depth does not pay a large mass penalty (unlike drill strings where increasing the drill string length is mass intensive). The wireline approach is also well-suited to automation of the penetration process because communication connectivity between the bottomhole assembly and the surface is greatly simplified.

Source: Dr. Geoffrey Briggs, NASA Ames Research Center; Jeffrey George, manager, Exploration Office, Johnson Space Center