Rocks are central to the debate about ancient life on the Red Planet. The Rock Abrasion Tool, or RAT, could enable some of the most important discoveries that the Athena payload will make. This tool, mounted on the end of the rover's robotic arm, will drill into selected rocks on Mars, exposing fresh surfaces of rock for further scientific investigation.
Stephen Gorevan, an engineer at Honeybee Robotics, leads the RAT development team. "I don't do the detailed engineering so much as make all the right hands know what all the left hands are doing," says Stephen. He's the guy who keeps all team members up-to-date on the status of the project. He also makes sure they are working individually and collaboratively toward a unified goal.
The main function of the RAT is to remove dust and weathered rock to expose the fresh rock underneath. If the rocks are weathered from long-term exposure to the planet's atmosphere, the surface may be quite different from the interior. It's crucial to Mars science to get beyond the surface rind and dust to expose Martian rocks containing fossil evidence.
Scientists and engineers must learn from the past and be as imaginative as possible when approaching their work. One of the main responsibilities of an engineer at Honeybee is to anticipate problems the RAT could encounter on the mission. For instance, when the blades grind into the rock, they can get caked with dust and shavings, so the Honeybee team came up with a simple solution. They inserted a wire brush to clean the RAT teeth and maintain its cutting power. "This will also help to avoid cross contaminating cuttings from different rocks," says Stephen.
Stephen's decision to become an engineer grew out of a lifelong dream to work for NASA. "I remember sitting with my fellow second graders absolutely floored by the Mercury launches that we watched in the cafeteria." Now he works in an office above the spacecraft component assembly area. "The building, located in the Little Italy section of Manhattan, is an old Con Edison DC power substation-it's beautiful!" he remarks.
Looking to future missions, Stephen mentions another drill in-the-works, "it may be a precursor to a drill that could fly on the 07 mars mission opportunity. This could be a drill that goes deep below the surface to obtain samples-the depth could even be over 10 meters." This kind of scientific exploration provides exciting opportunities for young, highly motivated engineers. "At Honeybee," Stephen mentions, "you don't have to wait around for years to work on the most interesting projects."
The development of the RAT is Stephen's primary responsibility now. "When we land," Stephen says, "my focus will shift toward making sure the RAT is used properly on Mars... and that, I'm sure, will prove to be much harder than it sounds."