The ROTOZIP Duracut Zip Bit, paired with a high-speed rasp, has enabled NASA's Phoenix Lander to collect valuable soil samples. NASA scientists confirmed the ROTOZIP-enabled rasp is the first tool in history to successfully cut into the permafrost surface of another planet and acquire a sample for analysis. To date, samples have led to the discovery of water on Mars and helped identify an intriguing chemical in the Martian soil.
Designed to cut through hard materials such as cement board, stucco and plaster, the Duracut bit has proved to be an outer space success, breaking through Martian permafrost and enabling the Phoenix team to obtain and deliver the sample to the Lander's laboratory oven for analysis.
Obtaining and studying soil samples is central to the design of the Phoenix Mission, whose objective is to investigate the history of the water in the ice, monitor the polar regions weather, and determine whether the Martian environment has ever been favorable for sustaining microbial life. The challenge thus far has been gathering a large enough soil sample for analysis.
The rasp, or rapid active sampling package, is one of three methods being used to collect Martian soil samples. The rasp spins the ROTOZIP bit at high speeds enabling it to quickly and efficiently loosen bits of hard Martian soil and collect the shavings within a chamber in the heel of the Phoenix's scoop. Materials can also be obtained by scooping the surface with a backhoe using the front titanium blade and scraping the surface with the tungsten carbide secondary blade on the bottom of the scoop. The scooping and scraping techniques are suitable for gathering dry, regolith-like samples, yet have yielded few results in acquiring samples from Mars' concrete-like permafrost surface.
"We are overjoyed that our Duracut bit helped to simplify the soil extraction process," said Terry Horan, ROTOZIP President. "We knew our ROTOZIP bits were able to perform under harsh conditions but never imagined that something right off hardware shelves would also penetrate the surface of Mars."
Surprisingly, the rasp was a last-minute addition to the mission. Prior to its launch, the Phoenix team determined that the icy soil might prove difficult to cut and challenging to collect enough permafrost material for analysis. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory contracted Honeybee Robotics, and together they began working on an alternative design to loosen and collect an icy sample more quickly. The team knew it needed to be a small, robust concept that used little power yet allowed them to cut into strong structures, especially since the icy soil is often as hard as concrete. After testing various bit configurations under simulated Mars conditions, it was determined that the ROTOZIP Duracut offered the best performance.
The Phoenix Mars Lander launched in August of 2007 and arrived in the north polar region of Mars in late May of 2008. The solar-powered Lander is expected to remain active on the surface of Mars through late fall, when operations are expected to shut down due to the dark Martian winter and the harsh atmospheric conditions that will bury the Lander in ice.
The Phoenix mission is led by Peter Smith at the University of Arizona with project management at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and development partnership at Lockheed Martin in Denver. International contributions come from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the Universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark; the Max Planck Institute in Germany; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.