NASA and Japan’s space agency JAXA have selected a new low-cost sample collection technology for 2 missions to the Moon and the Martian moon Phobos.
PlanetVac, developed by Altadena, California-based Honeybee Robotics and funded partially by Planetary Society members and supporters, is scheduled to fly to the Moon in 2023 and to Phobos in 2024. The Moon flight comes courtesy of a NASA program to fund commercial lunar landers and payloads, while the trip to Phobos will be aboard JAXA’s Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission. PlanetVac is a NASA contribution to MMX and will be one of two sample acquisition systems that collects a sample from Phobos that will be returned to Earth.
“We’re thrilled that our members and supporters have helped enable a technology that will collect samples from the Moon and Phobos,” said Bruce Betts, The Planetary Society’s chief scientist. “PlanetVac demonstrates that providing public-supported seed funding at key times can serve a critical role in moving technologies closer to use in space flight.”
The samples PlanetVac collects can be analyzed with on-board science instruments, returned to Earth, or both. The Planetary Society’s science and technology program sponsored tests of PlanetVac in 2013 and 2018.
Although its name implies something akin to a household vacuum cleaner, PlanetVac works by blowing gas into a planetary surface, stirring soil and rock up into a collection chamber. In its simplest form, PlanetVac attaches to a spacecraft’s lander leg, meaning the device is ready to work as soon as the lander touches down. The system requires as little as one moving part: a valve that opens to release the gas.
“PlanetVac seeks to greatly simplify the way we collect samples on other worlds,” said Kris Zacny, the vice president of exploration systems at Honeybee Robotics. “We designed the system to be flexible for a wide variety of applications, and we’re already demonstrating that by flying it on two very different missions.”