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Getting Down and Dirty with Curiosity's Sampling System
By Qualification Model Dirty Testing Team

Qualification Model Dirty Testing (QMDT) Team

Hi, we are the Qualification Model Dirty Testing (QMDT) Team and we have been tasked with testing the performance of Curiosity’s sampling system using an Earth based replica of the sampling hardware. Our team has been testing continuously for over two years! We make up just one part of a large group that is committed to ensuring successful sampling on Mars.

Our test lab is equipped with a replica of the drill and the Collection and Handling for In situ Martian Rock Analysis, or CHIMRA for short. This is the sampling hardware on the end of Curiosity’s arm. All of this sits within a thermal vacuum chamber where we can mimic the Mars environment by creating a low-pressure atmosphere. We can also control the temperature of the chamber and test in both hot and cold extremes.

How do we actually test the sampling system? Well, it involves a lot of drilling, scooping, and sample processing. Our team's overall program has involved testing a large suite of rocks and regolith to understand the sampling system performance across the variety of samples we might encounter on Mars. We have drilled a multitude of rock types with varying compositions, and our scientists have even created some man-made rocks.

After acquiring a sample with the drill, it is transferred to the CHIMRA. CHIMRA can either accept rock powder from the drill, or acquire soil (regolith) using its own scoop. Once the sample has been acquired, the tool sieves the sample and generates small portions for delivery to science instruments for analysis.

A great explanation of how the sampling system works can be found in the Rover Report by MSL Lead Hardware Engineer Avi Okon titled "Rover Readies for Second Drilling."

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Rover Readies for Second Drilling
Curiosity prepares for a second drilling and a tutorial on the complicated choreography to get the drill sample to her instruments.
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Over the course of Qualification Model Dirty Testing, we’ve worked hand-in-hand with both scientists and engineers to find the most effective way of operating Curiosity’s sampling system. Most of our team consists of young mechanical engineers and nearly half of us are women! Not something you see very often in our profession. It’s this young enthusiastic group that makes working on this team so enjoyable and has contributed to our success. We energetically combine working hard with having a lot of fun. Often putting in long hours and performing sometimes repetitive tasks (drill, drill, drill…), we found dance breaks and sing-a-longs are great stress relievers in the lab!

We’re so proud to have played a role in such an incredible project and are amazed by the findings from Curiosity over its first year on the surface. We look forward to the groundbreaking science still to come in the future and of course more sampling!