October 9, 2014 – Honeybee Robotics Spacecraft Mechanisms Corporation is contributing to a new NASA Astrobiology Institute program, “Changing Planetary Environments and the Fingerprints of Life,” led by the SETI Institute. The 5-year project is designed to help scientists understand the location and characteristics of signatures of life on Mars.
Under the leadership of Co-Investigator Kris Zacny, Honeybee Robotics will contribute its expertise with planetary drilling and sample collection to help members of the SETI research team gather relevant samples for in-situ and laboratory-based analysis. This information will help program managers identify, collect and cache the most valuable samples from the Mars 2020 rover for future sample return to Earth.
Led by planetary geologist and Senior Research Scientist at the SETI Institute, Nathalie Cabrol, more than 20 members on the project team will work to address key questions about identifying the signature of past or present life on Mars. To model and test strategies for biosignature detection, the team will gather samples from extreme environments on Earth that are analogous to sites on Mars where water once flowed. Fieldwork will include sampling at Yellowstone National Park, sites in California and Chile, Axel Heiberg Island in the Arctic, and Western Australia. Sites will be explored from satellites, air, ground, and at the microscopic level in the field and laboratory.
Honeybee Robotics’ tools will be the principal method for gathering samples of these biogeomaterials. Using coring drill technology relevant to Mars 2020-type missions, the field teams will gather core samples using Honeybee Robotics systems and analyze them on-site with instruments similar to those that could be integrated on future Mars missions.
“Honeybee Robotics has developed a unique expertise in planetary sampling tools over our last 20 years of research,” said Honeybee Robotics Director Kris Zacny. “We’re excited to deploy our coring drills to sites analogous to Mars in support of the ‘Fingerprints of Life’ mission. This research will lead to a significant step forward in gathering functional information about sample selection prior to the next Mars rover mission.”
Over the past two decades, Honeybee Robotics has developed dozens of drilling and sampling systems for planetary exploration, ranging from surface-level drills, to systems for sampling meters deep, to drills that can penetrate dozens or more meters. The company has contributed sample preparation, drilling, and sampling handling systems to the last three generations of NASA’s Mars landers, including the Rock Abrasion Tools on the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the Icy Soil Acquisition Device (aka the “Phoenix Scoop”) on the Mars Phoenix Lander, and the Dust Removal Tool and Sample Manipulation System on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity.
Although Honeybee Robotics is based in New York, a satellite office in Longmont, Colorado helps in the development of many of its tools.