Putting RATs to Work on Mars: NJIT Grad Developed Tool to Study Martian Rocks

Martian rover (photo courtesy NASA)

While he was chief engineer at Honeybee Robotics, Tom Myrick (1984) helped send two RATs to Mars.

Not real RATs.

Rather, RATs is an acronym for Rock Abrasion Tools -- instruments used to study rocks from Mars. It was these instruments, made by Myrick, that visited Mars.

He designed the tool that grinds away a few millimeters of the Martian rocks’ surface, thereby removing the dust and rind that makes them hard to analyze.

Myrick’s tool was mounted on two NASA rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity – that in the winter of 2004 landed on Mars.

It is an impressive accomplishment for Myrick, whose career was launched with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from NJIT, which he earned in 1984. He picked NJIT, he said, because it had a strong engineering school; it was inexpensive; and it was close to where he lived in New Providence, N.J. He commuted to campus for a year before moving into a fraternity house.

After he graduated, he spent two years working as house painter. He wanted to take his time and carefully choose his first engineering job. Eventually he took job with a firm that imported industrial robots from Japan, after which he went to work for Honeybee Robotics. Myrick was part of Honeybee’s evolution into a leading developer of highly customized robots.

Myrick spoke enthusiastically about the equipment he and his colleagues envisioned for the Martian sample-return mission. “It was just a great design,” he said, “capable of drilling rock core samples, breaking them off with a capture feature and exchanging drill bits. The samples would have then been sent into orbit around Mars and snared by another spacecraft for the trip back to Earth.”

When the Honeybee hardware landed on Mars, Myrick and some colleagues joined the Martian rover control team at the Pasadena, Calif., headquarters of Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They helped the engineers with their experiments on the planet. “We helped to select appropriate target rocks,” Myrick recalled, “ones that we felt were especially ‘RATable.’ It was an incredibly exciting experience.”

Myrick said that Honeybee’s biggest challenge was to switch from designing a drill that could penetrate certain areas on the Martian surface to developing a grinding mechanism that removes several millimeters of rock. “You have to deal with an entirely different set of forces and target characteristics,” he said.

Myrick also shares the consensus that the mission’s most significant result is the mounting evidence that water was once abundant on Mars; that increases the likelihood that the planet once supported life. And he anticipates that more sophisticated equipment from Honeybee will be aboard the roving laboratory that NASA plans to launch by the end of this decade. That lab will continue the search for evidence of life on Mars.

Myrick, who received an NJIT Alumni Award in 2004, is proud of the work his RATs did on Mars.

“I think it’s fair to say that this was the most fruitful interplanetary landing effort to date,” he said, echoing a sentiment that’s universal among participating scientists and engineers. “It’s was amazingly successful in terms of both hardware performance and the knowledge we gained.”

(By Dean Maskevich, University Communications)

The original version of this article first appeared in the fall 2004 issue of NJIT's Alumni Magazine. See more stories from the Alumni Magazine at magazine.njit.edu.