This work is a method to drill into a rock surface regardless of the gravitational field or orientation. The required weight-on-bit (WOB) is supplied by a self-contained anchoring mechanism. The system includes a rotary percussive coring drill, forming a complete sampling instrument usable by robot or human. This method of in situ sample acquisition using microspine anchoring technology enables several NASA mission concepts not currently possible with existing technology, including sampling from consolidated rock on asteroids, providing a bolt network for astronauts visiting a near-Earth asteroid, and sampling from the ceilings or vertical walls of lava tubes and cliff faces on Mars.

The top and side views of the assembled Microgravity Drill showing (1) the housing, (2) drive motor, (3) linear translation mechanism, (4) slide carriage, (5) compression springs ×4, (6) bit, (7) guide rails ×2, (8) mounting plate, and (9) housed linear bearings ×6.
One of the most fundamental parameters of drilling is the WOB; essentially, the load applied to the bit that allows it to cut, creating a reaction force normal to the surface. In every drilling application, there is a minimum WOB that must be maintained for the system to function properly. In microgravity (asteroids and comets), even a small WOB could not be supported conventionally by the weight of the robot or astronaut. An anchoring mechanism would be needed to resist the reactions, or the robot or astronaut would push themselves off the surface and into space.

The ability of the system to anchor itself to a surface creates potential applications that reach beyond use in low gravity. The use of these anchoring mechanisms as end effectors on climbing robots has the potential of vastly expanding the scope of what is considered accessible terrain. Further, because the drill is supported by its own anchor rather than by a robotic arm, the workspace is not constrained by the reach of such an arm. Yet, if the drill is on a robotic arm, it has the benefit of not reflecting the forces of drilling back to the arm’s joints. Combining the drill with the anchoring feet will create a highly mobile, highly stable, and highly reliable system.

The drilling system’s anchor uses hundreds of microspine toes that independently find holes and ledges on a rock to create an anchor. Once the system is anchored, a linear translation mechanism moves the drill axially into the surface while maintaining the proper WOB. The linear translation mechanism is composed of a ball screw and stepper motor that can translate a carriage with high precision and applied load. The carriage slides along rails using self-aligning linear bearings that correct any axial misalignment caused by bending and torsion. The carriage then compresses a series of springs that simultaneously transmit the load to the drill along the bit axis and act as a suspension that compensates for the vibration caused by percussive drilling.

The drill is a compacted, modified version of an off-the-shelf rotary percussive drill, which uses a custom carbide-tipped coring bit. By using rotary percussive drilling, the drill time is greatly reduced. The percussive action fractures the rock debris, which is removed during rotation. The final result is a 0.75-in. (≈1.9cm) diameter hole and a preserved 0.5- in. (≈1.3cm) diameter rock core.

This work extends microspine technology, making it applicable to astronaut missions to asteroids and a host of robotic sampling concepts. At the time of this reporting, it is the first instrument to be demonstrated using microspine anchors, and is the first selfcontained drill/anchor system to be demonstrated that is capable of drilling in inverted configurations and would be capable of drilling in microgravity.

This work was done by Aaron Parness, Matthew A. Frost, and Jonathan P. King of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:

Innovative Technology Assets Management
Mail Stop 202-233
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, CA 91109-8099
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Document cover
Microgravity Drill and Anchor System

(reference NPO-48316) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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