Field Testing the Auto-Gopher Wireline Drill

Over the past several weeks we’ve been preparing for a field test of a next-generation drill, called the Auto-Gopher. I’m happy to say that it’s been a success, and paves the way for future planetary missions to Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, among other destinations.

We’re especially excited about this drill because it’s a wire-line design. The drill itself is suspended on a tether, so to reach deeper operators just need to pay out more cable. This enables drilling at great depths, beyond the reach of traditional drills or even telescoping architectures.

The team from Honeybee joined forces with engineers and scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Southern California to test the drill at the US Gypsum Company gypsum quarry outside Salton Sea, CA. This site offers two advantages: first, it’s a good analog for surface operations on other planets because gypsum strength is similar to that of water-ice at low temperature. Second, it’s well within reach from our Pasadena office, offering flexibility to field test the drill without traveling all the way to a glacier. Gypsum has also been found on Mars.

Auto-Gopher is an ultrasonic-rotary drill, which uses vibrations to hammer the bit through rock formations. The ultrasonic/percussive component, provided by collaborators from NASA JPL, allowed faster penetration rates and in turn lower overall drilling energy. The drill captures core samples every 100mm, each of which is 57mm in diameter. During operations, every 100 mm the system pulls the drill out and captures a core sample for later analysis.

During the course of just over 2 days, we reached our target depth of 3m and acquired ~99% of cores. The penetration rate was over 1 meter per hour, and it took a bit over 10 hours to lift and lower the drill. We captured 32 cores in total, which, if it were from Mars or another spot in the solar system, would provide an invaluable source of information. In all, aside from a few minor issues, including a loose wire, the drilling progressed smoothly from start to finish.

In all this demonstration was a major step in proving wireline drilling technology for future planetary missions. We have our eye on Mars, for obvious reasons. But Europa and Enceladus are also top targets because both moons appear to have extensive water ice on the surface and liquid water underneath. For any mission, the idea is to target ice deposits on these planetary bodies because boreholes in ice are less likely to collapse and trap the drill in a hole.

This project has been 4 years in the making, supported by the NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program. We’re thankful for their support and hope to see this kind of system beyond Earth before long!

Down the hole! Here, the drill is approximately 3 meters subsurface. As you can see, the drill itself is supported by a tether, and doesn’t require the kind of infrastructure that a traditional 3-meter drill would rely upon.

Here’s the Auto-Gopher drill, following the testing process, with three meters of core samples at its base.

A great team from NASA JPL, USC and Honeybee Robotics — thanks to everyone for your contributions to a successful field test. From left to right: Gale Paulsen, Bolek Mellerowicz, Ola Rzepiejwska (Honeybee Robotics), Bill Abbey, Luther Beegle, Stewart Sherrit, Jae Lee (NASA JPL), Yadi Ibarra (USC), Mircea Badescu (NASA JPL), Kris Zacny (Honeybee Robotics). Two team members missing from this picture are Yosi Bar-Cohen from NASA JPL and Frank Corsetti from USC.

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