Bruce BettsJun 07, 2018

A Planetary Vacuum Successfully Takes a Rocket Ride

Rocket science met planetary science in the California desert when PlanetVac, a new planetary surface sampling technique, was successfully tested on a Xodiac rocket.   This was a major step in moving a Planetary Society supported project one step closer to flying in space someday.  The Xodiac rocket lifted off, hovered and moved slightly, then landed PlanetVac in a bed of Mars soil simulant.  PlanetVac gathered hundreds of grams of sample, the rocket lifted off again, moved, and landed.  

PlanetVac Xodiac takes flight
PlanetVac Xodiac takes flight PlanetVac planetary sampling test flight on a Xodiac rocket, May 2018. PlanetVac can be seen as the left foot of the rocket in this picture. Bruce Betts / The Planetary Society
Sampling in progress
Sampling in progress PlanetVac Xodiac in the midst of sampling Mars soil simulant during a flight test in May 2018. PlanetVac is the far foot of the lander in this picture. A dust cloud produced during the sampling can be seen. For more information, visit the PlanetVac homepage. Bruce Betts

The activity demonstrated that Honeybee Robotics’ PlanetVac could be adapted to a planetary lander, in this case replacing a landing foot of a Masten Space Systems Xodiac rocket.  It also demonstrated PlanetVac could survive and thrive attached to the hot, shaking environment of a rocket.  Successful demonstration of this so-called higher technology readiness level will make PlanetVac more likely to be selected to fly on future space missions.

PlanetVac is intended to be an alternative or additional way to do something that is challenging and very scientifically valuable: collect planetary samples, in other words, dirt and rocks from planetary surfaces using robotic spacecraft.  PlanetVac uses gas to force the dirt up into a sampling container or instrument.  Its use of only one moving part – a valve to release the gas – makes it reliable.  And its relatively low mass and cost are also big pluses in the planetary game. 

In 2013, Planetary Society members funded early tests of PlanetVac in a vacuum chamber at Mars pressures. The test was successful.

NASA selected PlanetVac for its Flight Opportunities program to fly on a Xodiac rocket.  NASA sponsored the flight, and Planetary Society members and donors came together to provide the additional funding needed for Honeybee Robotics to adapt PlanetVac to the Xodiac. Several Planetary Society staff as well as some donors to the project got the opportunity to witness a flight.

The flights took place at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the southern California desert. The day started off with safety briefings from Masten personnel, then we and the rocket headed to the launch pad.  After careful preparations and fueling of the liquid oxygen, the rocket launched, a spectacular sensory experience with magnificent visuals and big sound.  Landing occurred about half a minute later a few meters away with the PlanetVac leg in the Mars simulant.  Sampling itself took only ten seconds.  The rocket flew back to its starting point and landed.  Following venting of the remaining liquid oxygen and safety checks, we were allowed to approach the rocket and retrieve the PlanetVac sampling container.  Targeting 100 grams of sample, Honeybee engineers were very excited when flights obtained more than 300 grams of sample.  It was a big success and a great experience.

Removing the sample container
Removing the sample container Removing the sample collection container from PlanetVac Xodiac following a successful test flight in May 2018. For more information, visit the PlanetVac homepage. Bruce Betts
Successful sampling
Successful sampling PlanetVac Xodiac sampling container following successful sampling during a Xodiac rocket flight. More than 300 grams of Mars simulant that was collected can be seen in the container. Lens cap for scale. For more information, visit the PlanetVac homepage. Bruce Betts

Thanks to all the Planetary Society supporters and members who made this possible!

Learn more about PlanetVac Xodiac:

More images:

All smiles for PlanetVac Xodiac
All smiles for PlanetVac Xodiac Following a successful test flight of PlanetVac in May 2018, with the sample collection container at left and the Xodiac rocket behind. Shown left to right: Justin Spring (Senior Project Engineer, Honeybee Robotics), Mat Kaplan (Planetary Radio Host and Producer, The Planetary Society), Kathryn Luczek (Project Engineer, Honeybee Robotics), and Bruce Betts (Chief Scientist, The Planetary Society). For more information, visit the PlanetVac homepage. The Planetary Society
Bill Nye and donors
Bill Nye and donors Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye and donors to PlanetVac Xodiac pose in front of the Xodiac rocket following a successful sampling test flight. Front row, shown left to right: Scott Purdy, Lauren Roberts, Dustin Roberts, Brian Pope, Shirley Ginzburg and Allen Ginzburg. Back row, shown left to right: Pendleton Ward, Bill Nye (CEO), Martin Schmitt, and Sue Ganz-Schmitt. For more information, visit the PlanetVac homepage. Richard Chute / The Planetary Society

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