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NORCAT develops mini coring drill for space

September 1, 2010
by Norm Tollinsky
In: Research with 0 Comments

The Sudbury-based Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) is midway through the design and development of a mini coring drill that could serve as a prototype for future missions to the moon or Mars.

The $1.4 million contract from the Canadian Space Agency builds on NORCAT’s track record for applying mining know-how to space exploration. The mini coring drill will sit at the end of a two-metre articulating arm extending from a rover and produce a core sample of 10 to 12 centimetres in length.

Other drills NORCAT has developed for NASA and the CSA have been designed to take much longer core samples and have been able to rely on the dead weight of a rover or lander to push down on the drill.

“Because it’s at the end of a long arm, the mini coring drill won’t have that ability to push down, so we had to rethink the way the drill operates,” said Dale Boucher, director of innovation.

The mini coring drill is being designed to operate semi-autonomously because of the challenges associated with communicating or teleoperating equipment on the moon or Mars from Earth.

According to Boucher, a drill positioned in a crater at the South Pole of the moon would be limited to a 10-minute window of communication with Earth every 24 hours.

“We can’t have an operator operate a drill with only 10 minutes over a 24-hour period, so we need a drill that can operate without human intervention,” said Boucher.

Latency – the time lag between the issuing of a command and its receipt in space – poses another challenge.

“In the worst case scenario, the time lag between issuing an order and its receipt on Mars is 40 minutes, so I don’t understand how you can teleoperate something at that distance. The concept of someone saying, ‘Turn right’ is not going to happen and I don’t think it’s going to happen on the moon either. It can happen on the moon only if the lander is in the equatorial zone, but once you get to the South Pole, a shadowed crater or the dark side of the moon, you now have a whole bunch of other logistics that come into play.”

Instead, an operator on Earth will likely scan the area around the lander using a video feed, select a rock for sampling and issue a series of high-level commands that the lander and drill will carry out autonomously.

Given the low thrust and energy available – the unit will operate on less than 10 watts of power – Boucher estimates it will take a full day for the drill to take a 10-centimetre core sample.

Rock abrasion tool

The unit will also be equipped with a rock abrasion tool designed to remove the hard crust on a weathered rock prior to the use of the coring drill.

NORCAT expects to complete the design and development of the drill by March, following which it will be field tested on an analog mission on Earth.

Funding for the drill comes from a three-year $110 million budget allocated to the CSA as part of the Canadian government’s economic stimulus program. The space agency’s Exploration Surface Mobility program is designed to advance a suite of technologies that would be available for future missions.

The mini coring drill, for example, could be selected for a Mars sample return mission scheduled for 2018 or another mission proposed for the South Pole of the moon, said Boucher.

NORCAT faces stiff competition from much more prestigious organizations, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which will supply a mini coring drill for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission planned for 2012. However, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s drill will only drill to a depth of five centimeters and take a powdered sample.

“Our technology is designed to take a continuous sample,” said Boucher.

“We’re very firmly rooted in the mining industry. That’s what makes us different. Most of the other organizations are rooted in the aerospace industry trying to figure out how to do mining. We leverage mining industry know-how and technology.”

Hawaii analog mission

Last January, NORCAT led an analog mission to the 9,000-foot level of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano to test a suite of technologies, including rovers and drills it has built under previous contracts. Approximately 100 people from NORCAT, NASA, the CSA, the European Space Agency and other partners set up camp in the moon-like terrain to test construction, communication and oxygen producing technologies.

NASA brought along an oxygen production system that produced oxygen from volcanic material.

“We took the by-product hydrogen and used it to power up a fuel cell that was loaned to us by Natural Resources Canada,” said Boucher. “We used the fuel cell to power up the oxygen reactor and also stuck it on one of the rovers equipped with a bucket and used it to scoop up the volcanic dirt and dump it into the oxygen reactor, so it was a closed loop.”

The mission also tested landing pad construction technologies using NORCAT-built rovers and multi-agent teaming technology developed by the University of Toronto Centre for Aerospace Studies, which allows multiple rovers to work co-operatively on the basis of high-level commands.

“The rovers were given a very high-level command — build a landing pad, here’s the size, see you later. After weeks, it was done,” said Boucher. “It was 15 metres in diameter, had a one-metre berm at one end and was almost perfectly level. Near the end, we added a command to construct an access road onto the pad and one of the rovers split off to carry it out. It was absolutely mind-boggling.”


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