In about a year (Sept. 20th, 2021), the Rosalind Franklin rover will depart for Mars. As the latest mission in the ESA’s and Roscosmos’ ExoMars program, Rosalind Franklin will join the small army of orbiters, landers, and rovers that are working to characterize the Martian atmosphere and environment. A key aspect of the rover’s mission will involve drilling into the Martian soil and rock and obtaining samples from deep beneath the surface.

To prepare for drilling operations on Mars, the ESA, Italian space agency (ASI), and their commercial partners have been conducting tests with a replica – aka. the Ground Test Model (GTM). Recently, the test model completed its first round of sample collection, known as the Mars Terrain Simulation (MTS). The rover drilled into hard stone and extracted samples from 1.7 meters (5.5 feet) beneath the surface in a record-breaking feat.

The MTS operations are being held at the Rover Operations Control Center (ROCC), located on the Aerospace Logistics Technology Engineering Company (ALTEC) premises in Turin, Italy. These dry runs are basically a dress rehearsal for the surface operations conducted by the real rover, which is being developed in parallel in preparation for launch next year.

The GTM undergoing tests at the ROCC in Turin, Italy. Credit: ESA

To test how Rosalind Franklin will fare in on the Red Planet, the GTM has been drilling into a well filled with various rocks and soil layers. This takes place on a dedicated platform tilted at seven degrees to simulate the sample collection process on realistic, variable terrain. The first sample was obtained from a block of cement clay of medium solidity and was shaped like a pellet measuring about 2 cm long and 1 cm in diameter (0.787 x 0.39 inches).

Once collected, Rosalind Franklin’s drill retains the sample with a shutter that prevents it from falling out during retrieval. Once the drill is completely retracted, the sample is dropped into a drawer in the front of the rover, which closes and deposits the sample into a crushing station. The resulting powder is then distributed to ovens and containers inside designed to perform scientific analysis.

By drilling to a depth of 1.7 meters, the GTM established a new record for sample collection, as the deepest any mission has drilled on Mars to date is 7 cm (2.75 inches). The Rosalind Franklin rover is designed to drill deep up to 2 meters (6.5 ft) beneath the Martian surface, the purpose of which is to gain access to any well-preserved organic material that may have migrated there from 4 billion years ago and after.

At that time, Mars was a warmer, wetter place where surface conditions were similar to what is believed to have existed on Earth around the same time. With the success of missions like the Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance rovers – which found compelling evidence for flowing water and organics on the surface – scientists have been eager to get a peek at the subsurface environment to see if this is where Mars’ water and possibly life could have retreated to.

The GMT test drilling rock and soil samples at the ROCC
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