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Headshot of Bruce Betts

Planetary Dirt Sampling Success

Posted by Bruce Betts

04-12-2013 13:17 CST

Topics: Planetary Society Projects, explaining technology, PlanetVac, Planetary Society Video, Planetary Society People

Thanks to Planetary Society members and donors, Honeybee Robotics has designed, constructed, and tested in a vacuum chamber a full PlanetVac system for the first time. I am happy to report to you their success, including presenting a video about the PlanetVac system that shows the tests themselves. I visited Honeybee for one of the tests and it was very impressive. But, why are we interested in a new sampling system?

Bruce Betts with PlanetVac Prototype

The Planetary Society

Bruce Betts with PlanetVac Prototype
Planetary Society Director of Projects with PlanetVac planetary sampling system prototype which is suspended in a vacuum chamber at Honeybee Robotics prior to tests that dropped it onto Mars soil simulant.

One of the hardest things to do in planetary exploration, but one of the most valuable, is to sample a planetary surface – gather planetary dirt – and then transfer that dirt to a science instrument or sample return capsule. Current ways to do that, such as robotic arms, are costly and complex with lots of moving parts. Wouldn’t it be nice to have other options as well that could be used depending on the situation?

PlanetVac, which stands for Planetary Vacuum, is a concept that effectively vacuums up planetary regolith (the dirt overlying bedrock) for quick and reliable surface sampling. In practice it actually blows materials up tubes using compressed gas, which by the way, is usually available on landers already because it is used to pressurize the fuel tanks. The PlanetVac sampling devices would be built into the lander legs themselves. This technique can conceptually be used to feed surface dirt to science instruments and/or feed it into sample return rockets on landers on Mars, asteroids, or the Moon. Because of the low pressures on all those bodies, the technique is extremely efficient because the efficiency is related to the ratio of the pressure of the gas you are using to the ambient pressure.

Honeybee Robotics had tested single components of the system and found it to be extremely efficient. But, would a full system work as predicted on simulated planetary surface materials, for both Mars and the Moon, in a vacuum chamber? To find out, the Honeybee team, composed of professional engineers, college students, and a high school intern, designed and built a full PlanetVac prototype system as well as a simplified small lander on which to install it.

The team suspended the whole set up in their large phone-booth sized vacuum chamber, pumped it down to low pressures, for example to Mars surface pressures, then dropped the lander onto Martian or lunar simulant (Earth dirt chosen for its similar properties to regolith on Mars or the Moon). The system included specially designed lander foot pads that included a hollow tube that led up the lander legs.

The PlanetVac System

Honeybee Robotics

The PlanetVac System
Key components of the Honeybee Robotics PlanetVac surface sampling system, sponsored by The Planetary Society.

After landing, interior tubes were deployed a few centimeters deeper into the soil to increase efficiency. A nice fall back is that the system still works even if the interior tube fails to deploy. Compressed gas running down a lander leg was used to force the Mars or lunar simulant up the interior sampling tube. One lander leg deposited dirt into a simulated science instrument (a clear box viewed by a camera to watch the process). Another deposited dirt into a simulated ascent vehicle, a rather playful compressed gas powered rocket (not an accurate simulation) that launched at the end of the process.

The tests were very successful, demonstrating the effectiveness of a PlanetVac system for quickly and reliably sampling planetary surface materials. Also, much was learned in the process as designs were created and refined and further lessons learned on how to improve future designs. Honeybee is now in the process of writing up the details of the system and the tests and what was learned. They will publish the results in professional journals and present them at engineering and science conferences.

PlanetVac system on Mars soil simulant

Honeybee Robotics

PlanetVac system on Mars soil simulant
Honeybee Robotics’ PlanetVac system, sponsored by The Planetary Society, after successful testing in vacuum chamber, sits on Mars soil simulant that it successfully sampled.

Thanks for making this new prototype planetary sampling technique happen! Enjoy this video that documents the system, and shows video from the tests:

PlanetVac: Planetary Surface Sampling Vacuum Chamber Demonstration

Honeybee Robotics' PlanetVac, made possible by The Planetary Society, is a new way of doing one of the hardest yet most valuable things in planetary exploration: sampling a planetary surface -- gathering planetary dirt -- and then transferring that dirt to a science instrument or sample return capsule. This video documents the first test of a complete prototype PlanetVac system, done in a vacuum chamber at Mars-like pressures. PlanetVac, which stands for Planetary Vacuum, is a concept that effectively vacuums up planetary regolith (the dirt overlying bedrock) for quick and reliable surface sampling. More info:

See other posts from December 2013


Or read more blog entries about: Planetary Society Projects, explaining technology, PlanetVac, Planetary Society Video, Planetary Society People


Ricardo Bell: 12/05/2013 12:03 CST

Thanks, Dr. betts, for your detailed description of this fascinating project, and for the accompanying photos and video. I only wish our first sample return vehicle could resemble this video's Buck Rogers rocket, complete with its cool fins.

Rand Carawan: 02/22/2014 03:11 CST

Hi Bruce, I viewed the PlanetVac video. Good job. Have followed the progress over the past year(s). During the introductory phase of exposure to members, and beyond to this day. My reason for writing is to ask when consideration will be made for criteria supporting an exploration mission that goes beyond sampling a planetary surface. Costs perhaps $20 - $30 million. The value argument is in 2 parts. The first being an old space vs. new space principle. What I consider old space, is the idea that anything off this planet can be considered 'science' or worthy of tax payer funding towards scientific pursuits. New space would question that and literally try to drill down to the value added in any such off-world mission. Terrestrially, it's a basic and preliminary task while exploring any land claim to sample the surface first. Yet, on the Moon or even Mars, and other planetoids of missionary interest, there is little or no atmosphere, nor other Earthly impediment to corrupting the surface geology. As such, how is it that little if any consideration has been made to consider within mission design criteria the benefits to drilling? Terrestrial corporations in Mineral, Oil & Gas exploration will give only superficial relevance to surface samples, and pay down the big bucks solely on samples recovered from drilling. Thank you for accepting comments, Rand

Bruce Betts: 02/24/2014 01:51 CST

Rand: the science and general value of drilling is very much recognized. And, various groups including Honeybee Robotics are working on possible drilling set ups. The delay in doing sub-surface drilling is it is really, really hard robotically on another planetary surface, and it is going to be very expensive, not only in terms of money but in terms of other spacecraft resources like mass, volume, and power. But, it is very much recognized as very strongly desired for many reasons.

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