PlanetVac, a Planetary Society-funded technology that simplifies the process of collecting samples from other worlds, may fly to the Moon.
NASA last week picked PlanetVac and 11 other science and technology payloads to join its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which is sending a series of robotic spacecraft to the Moon ahead of humans returning there as soon as 2024. In 2021 and 2022, three commercially-built spacecraft are scheduled to land on the Moon, carrying with them instruments like PlanetVac to study the lunar surface and demonstrate new technologies. NASA will make the final payload selections at a later date.
The Planetary Society funded 2 tests of PlanetVac in 2013 and 2018 in partnership with Pasadena, California-based Honeybee Robotics, which builds the device. In its simplest configuration, PlanetVac replaces a spacecraft's landing leg with a hollow chamber open to the surface on the bottom. After landing, pressurized gas fires into the chamber, stirring soil up into either an onboard science instrument or a sample container for return to Earth.
The goal of PlanetVac is to reduce the cost and complexity of sample collection on planetary missions that would normally require heavy, slow, power-hungry robotic arms.
“PlanetVac is a great example of what The Planetary Society’s science and technology program seeks to do,” said Planetary Society chief scientist Bruce Betts. “Our members and supporters enable us to fund promising projects to develop and test them to a level where they can successfully get selected for flight by agencies like NASA.”
Honeybee has been developing PlanetVac since 2002, with sponsorship from various NASA technology development programs. The Planetary Society crowdfunded a 2013 lab test of PlanetVac, and along with NASA sponsored a 2018 field test using Masten Space Systems' Xodiac rocket, which takes off and lands vertically in California's Mojave Desert.
For the 2018 test, Honeybee replaced one of Xodiac's landing legs with PlanetVac. First, the rocket blasted off, hovered, and landed in a bed of simulated Martian soil. Then, PlanetVac successfully grabbed 300 grams of material—more than 3 times the amount Honeybee had hoped for—before Xodiac lifted off from the soil bed and made a second landing. The test showed PlanetVac could withstand the rigors of an actual rocket flight.
“The number of missions requiring a sample is on the rise, while there is pressure to reduce cost, mass, and volume,” said Kris Zacny, the PlanetVac principal investigator for Honeybee Robotics. “A PlanetVac sample can be delivered to an instrument or sample return container anywhere on a lander in a matter of seconds, and the low cost of the technology will allow instruments that require a sample to be flown on future CLPS missions.”
PlanetVac can be used as either a mission's primary sampling device, or function as a low-cost backup for another sample system. The design minimizes moving parts, and can even use gas from the same tanks used to pressurize a spacecraft's fuel tanks.
NASA's CLPS program is using commercially built landers to ferry a mix of NASA-built and non-NASA payloads to the Moon. For the 12 non-NASA payloads, which includes PlanetVac, the agency is using a two-phase selection process. The first phase awards each payload up to $3 million to prepare for a possible Moon flight. NASA will then select one or more individual payloads for the second phase: an actual mission.
Three missions are scheduled thus far. In 2020, a lander built by Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey will carry up to 4 payloads to Mare Imbrium, one of the Moon's dark lava plains visible from Earth. A year later, Houston, Texas-based Intuitive Machines will send as many as 5 payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, the Moon's largest lava plain. Also in 2021, Astrobotic of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania will send up to 14 payloads to a large crater on the near side of the Moon named Lacus Mortis.
Taking samples of other worlds is an important step towards discovery, but it is an expensive and complex process. Honeybee Robotics and The Planetary Society teamed up to solve this problem. This is PlanetVac.
PlanetVac Sample Collection
Attached to a lander leg, PlanetVac collects a surface sample by using an inert gas to move regolith into the sample container.
PlanetVac Sampling System
The PlanetVac sampling installed on a (1) lander leg, includes (2) a sampler cone, (3) air nozzles, (4) a sample container, (5) a filter, and (6) pneumatic tubing.
Bruce Betts / The Planetary Society
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.
Richard Chute / The Planetary Society
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.
About The Planetary Society
The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. With the mission to empower the world's citizens to advance space science and exploration, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world. Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded The Planetary Society in 1980. Bill Nye, a longtime member of The Planetary Society's Board, serves as CEO.