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NASA Tests Martian Drills in Idaho

Leaders of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab's Mars Technology Program have come to this southeastern Idaho city to find another world — or at least one that has some similarities to Mars.

Specifically, they came to test drills on the uniform basalt in the area that mimics what might exist on the red planet. The two teams from NASA are being hosted by officials with the Idaho National Laboratory.

"There are other places that have basalt," David Beaty, science manager for the lab's Mars Exploration Program Office, told the Post Register of Idaho Falls. "But this is a well-known research lab that had good potential for scientific synergy."

NASA scientists want to test the drills so they can be designed to go deeper into the Martian surface, yielding more information about the planet's history.

By digging deep, scientists will be able to analyze material not affected by erosion or meteors and get a better understanding of how the planet formed and if life ever existed on it.

"This is why we want to get deep," said Suparna Mukherjee, technical lead for NASA's subsurface access group. "Right now, I believe the record for drilling into Mars is 8.12 millimeters" — about a third of an inch — "and out of it, we've gotten a huge amount of science."

The team is attempting a new record: 20 meters, or about 65 feet. Scientists hope to achieve that goal with a machine that can't weigh more than 77 pounds and operates on 75 watts of power. The drills must also operate semiautonomously.

The drills were tested on sandstone in Arizona in 2002. The tests in Idaho are expected to conclude this week. In the fall, the drills will be used to go through permafrost.

A final test in the spring of 2007 will have the drills attempting to go through a mixture of hard and soft subsurface layers.

"We wanted to get these drills out of the lab environment and test them in the harsh conditions of the field," Mukherjee said.

So far, tests in Idaho have been hampered by conditions that, by Earthly standards, have been harsh enough.

"Being from California, I wasn't used to the weather," said Jose Guerrero, chief technologist for Swales Aerospace.

Because of strong winds, scientists had to abandon the plastic party tent used to house the drills in favor of a more sturdy tent made of canvas.

The group has also had to deal with warm weather, forcing the team to surround drill holes with dry ice and only drill in the evening or early morning when the ground is frozen.

"Weather has been an issue," said Mike Brennan, technology division vice president for Raytheon-UTD. "Were designed for dry drilling, and everything we're bringing up right now looks like mud."