PlanetVac: Sampling other worlds

Meet the new low-cost, reliable approach to sampling planetary surfaces

With the help of Planetary Society members, donors, and Honeybee Robotics, we brought to life a new citizen-funded sampling technology that will help us do science on other planets. It’s called PlanetVac.

PlanetVac Xodiac: Sampling Other Worlds 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.

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How does it work?

Some of the biggest discoveries we make in planetary science rely on picking up pieces of other worlds. Soil sampled by the Curiosity rover showed us Mars had liquid water conducive to life for an extended period of time. Rocks brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts taught us the Moon is almost 4.6 billion years old. And grains of dust captured by the Stardust spacecraft contained amino acids, confirming comets can carry the building blocks of life.

Despite the fact that we've been scooping samples of planetary bodies since the 1960s, sample collection is still hard—and expensive. Robot arms are heavy, complicated, and power hungry, and they don't work on low-gravity worlds.

That’s where PlanetVac—short for Planetary Vacuum—changes the game.

PlanetVac Sample Collection
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.

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.

PlanetVac Sampling System
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. Honeybee Robotics

In 2013, we helped fund a successful test of this next-generation system in the lab, and in May 2018, we took it out for a successful test flight on a rocket called Xodiac.

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

Xodiac, built by Masten Space Systems, takes off and lands vertically in California's Mojave Desert. This allows space hardware developers to test new equipment and make sure prototypes can survive the stresses of a rocket launch and landing—all without actually flying to space.


PlanetVac wouldn’t have happened without the generosity of our members and donors.

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