After more than a year of inactivity, Nasa scientists have finally figured out a new technique to get the Mars Curiosity Rover's drill to function again. The agency reported that they were able to drill a small hole in Lake Orcadie to test this function.

This test had the rover drill a 1cm hole in the lake. While this sample is not big enough for any science, it proves that the drill can still be used. The mechanicals are still strong. Tests will continue, said Nasa, and this new technique will be further developed to the point where Curiosity could continue to make viable samples of the dirt on Mars.

Curiosity uses its drill to collect samples for two of its on-board testing instruments – Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin). The drill powders rock samples and separates them into these compartments. Since 2012, the drill has been used to collect 15 samples until December 2016, when the drill stopped functioning normally.

The drill was designed with two finger-like protrusions that keep it steady on the rock surface it is about to pulverise, then the bit extends out between the stands and begins to drill. A motor that controls this motion malfunctioned, and the drill was unable to work.

After a few months of testing, engineers were able to get the bit to extend out beyond the stabilisers, but Nasa reports that the motor issue persisted. The Curiosity team started to then think of a way to use the drill without the stabilisers.

Over the course of a little over a year, the team was able to hack the drill so that it could free-hand the drilling and not really require the stabilisers. They practised for months on the life size Curiosity model here on Earth. The same process when applied to the Rover on Mars, worked. Unlike a steady drill press like action that was mechanically stabilised, now the drill works free hand.

"We're now drilling on Mars more like the way you do at home," said Steven Lee, deputy project manager at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "Humans are pretty good at re-centering the drill, almost without thinking about it. Programming Curiosity to do this by itself was challenging — especially when it wasn't designed to do that."

"This is a really good sign for the new drilling method," said Doug Klein of JPL, one of Curiosity's sampling engineers. "Next, we have to drill a full-depth hole and demonstrate our new techniques for delivering the sample to Curiosity's two onboard labs."

Mars Rover
Nasa's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at the 'Mojave' site on Mars NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS via Getty Images