Shoulder Motor Balks on Opportunity Rover's Robotic Arm

Apr 24, 2008
Mars Exploration Rover
Artist's concept of Mars Exploration Rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University.

A small motor in the robotic arm of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity that began stalling occasionally more than two years ago has become more troublesome recently.

Rover engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., are diagnosing why the motor, one of five in the robotic arm, stalled on April 14 after much less motion that day than in the case of several earlier stalls. They are also examining whether the motor can be used and assessing the impact on Opportunity's work if the motor were no longer usable.

The motor controls sideways motion at the shoulder joint of the rover robotic arm. Other motors provide up-and-down motion at the shoulder and maneuverability at the elbow and wrist. A turret at the end of the arm has four tools that the arm places in contact with rocks and soils to study their composition and texture.

"Even under the worst-case scenario for this motor, Opportunity still has the capability to do some contact science with the arm," said JPL's John Callas, project manager for the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit. "The vehicle has quite a bit of versatility to continue the high-priority investigations in Victoria Crater and back out on the Meridiani plains after exiting the crater."

The performance of the motor in the past week is consistent with increased resistance in the electrical circuit, such as from degrading of wire in the winding, rather than a mechanical jam. Additional tests are planned for checking whether the apparent resistance is localized or intermittent.

Opportunity and Spirit landed on Mars in January 2004 to begin missions originally planned for three months. They have continued operating for more than four years, though each with some signs of aging.

Opportunity's balky shoulder motor began stalling occasionally in November 2005. The motor could still be operated by applying increased voltage. Engineers assessed it has an increased likelihood of becoming unusable, however, so the team changed its standard procedures for stowing and unstowing the arm.

Until then, on days when the arm would not be used, the team kept it stowed, resting on a hook under the front of the rover deck. Motion of the stall-prone shoulder motor is necessary to unstow the arm, so if the motor were to become unusable with the arm in the stowed position, the arm could not be deployed again. With diminished confidence in the balky motor, the team began unstowing the arm at the end of each day's drive rather than leaving it stowed overnight. This keeps the arm available for use even if the motor then stops working.

This spring, Opportunity is crossing an inner slope of Victoria Crater to reach the base of a cliff portion of the crater rim, a promontory called "Cape Verde." On April 14, Opportunity was backing out of a sandy patch encountered on the path toward Cape Verde from the area where the rover descended into the crater. As usual, the commands included unstowing the arm at the end of the day's short drive. The shoulder motor barely got the arm unstowed before stalling.

"We'll hold off backing out of the sand until after we've completed the diagnostic tests on the motor," Callas said. "The rover is stable and safe in its current situation, and not under any urgency. So we will take the time to act cautiously."

Source: NASA

Explore further: Cassini sees sunny seas on Titan

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

DARPA-funded DEKA arm system earns FDA approval

May 12, 2014

DARPA launched the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program with a radical goal: gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for an advanced electromechanical prosthetic upper limb with near-natural contro ...

The playground of neural engineering

May 08, 2014

A game player uses Thalia, a wearable interactive system, and then smiles in order to keep a unicorn in flight as it jumps through rainbows.

Recommended for you

Cassini sees sunny seas on Titan

20 hours ago

(Phys.org) —As it soared past Saturn's large moon Titan recently, NASA's Cassini spacecraft caught a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off hydrocarbon seas.

Is space tourism safe or do civilians risk health effects?

23 hours ago

Several companies are developing spacecraft designed to take ordinary citizens, not astronauts, on short trips into space. "Space tourism" and short periods of weightlessness appear to be safe for most individuals ...

An unmanned rocket exploded. So what?

Oct 30, 2014

Sputnik was launched more than 50 years ago. Since then we have seen missions launched to Mercury, Mars and to all the planets within the solar system. We have sent a dozen men to the moon and many more to ...

NASA image: Sunrise from the International Space Station

Oct 30, 2014

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman posted this image of a sunrise, captured from the International Space Station, to social media on Oct. 29, 2014. Wiseman wrote, "Not every day is easy. Yesterday was a tough one. ...

Copernicus operations secured until 2021

Oct 30, 2014

In a landmark agreement for Europe's Copernicus programme, the European Commission and ESA have signed an Agreement of over €3 billion to manage and implement the Copernicus 'space component' between 2014 ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Mercury_01
3 / 5 (2) Apr 24, 2008
they should have designed it with two arms and a roll of duct tape
weewilly
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2008
Truly an amazing accomplishment to have worked for this long under such harsh conditions. Great "long distance" engineering.
Mercury_01
not rated yet Apr 25, 2008
No doubt.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.