Honeybee Robotics Selected for Two NASA SBIR Phase II Awards

honeybee_roboticsNASA has selected Honeybee Robotics for two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II awards to continue development of technologies for use on the moon, Mars, asteroids and other worlds.

Under one award, Honeybee will develop a system capable of extracting and processing water and other volatile materials from the soil. The other award will fund the development of a hermetically sealed capsule for the return of soil samples from other worlds.

Honeybee’s mining technology is named the Planetary Volatiles Extractor (PVEx) Corer, “which uses a drill based excavation approach and an integrated volatiles extraction plant.

“Traditional ISRU architecture follows methods employed in the mining industry on earth: material is mined, crushed, transported, crushed again, processed, and waste is disposed of,” according to the project’s technical abstract. “However, mining concrete-hard ice and icy-soil is difficult without using explosives. Volatiles will get lost during crushing and transportation, and robotic material handling, as shown by the 2008 Mars Phoenix mission, is difficult….

“PVEx successfully addresses several aspects: drills can penetrate hard materials, there is no need for material crushing and transfer, if volatiles sublime, they will flow directly into the capture system. PVEx can also work with hydrated minerals,” the abstract says.

Honeybee’s hermetically sealed sample return capsule is primarily focused on  “induction brazing as a means of sealing a Mars Sample Return Orbiting Sample (OS) after it has been recovered by the MSR Orbiter spacecraft. Based on Phase 1, we determined that a brazing approach is the optimum method of sealing planetary samples and should be used as a primary seal,” according to the project’s technical abstract.

“Knife edges and O-rings should be pursued as secondary and redundant (backup) seals, respectively,” the abstract reads. “Therefore, we propose to design and fabricate hermetic sealing canisters and test their hermeticity to achieve leak rates of 10-7 atm cc/sec He. The canisters will be exposed to dust and thermal cycles to reach TRL 5/6 at the end of the Phase 2.”

Project summaries follow.

NASA SBIR PHASE II AWARD

Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Proposal Title: Planetary Volatiles Extractor for In-Situ Resource Utilization
Subtopic Title:
Regolith ISRU for Mission Consumable Production

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Kris Zacny

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) or living off the land relies on exploiting local resources and in turn reducing burden of transporting supplies. NASA has determined through various studies that ISRU will be critical for both robotic and human exploration of the Solar System. ISRU is also viewed by commercial Space companies as a significant source of revenue; volatiles (mainly water) could be mined and sold as Hydrogen/Oxygen fuel to satellite operators to extend spacecraft life.

Traditional ISRU architecture follows methods employed in the mining industry on earth: material is mined, crushed, transported, crushed again, processed, and waste is disposed of. However, mining concrete-hard ice and icy-soil is difficult without using explosives. Volatiles will get lost during crushing and transportation, and robotic material handling, as shown by the 2008 Mars Phoenix mission, is difficult. For these reasons, we propose the Planetary Volatiles Extractor (PVEx) Corer, which uses a drill based excavation approach and an integrated volatiles extraction plant. PVEx successfully addresses several aspects: drills can penetrate hard materials, there is no need for material crushing and transfer, if volatiles sublime, they will flow directly into the capture system. PVEx can also work with hydrated minerals.

Under the SBIR Phase 2 we propose to mature the technology from TRL 4 to TRL 5/6, and in turn ready the system for NASA’s next HEOMD and SMD missions, as well as commercial planetary missions.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA applications would satisfy goals of HEOMD and SMD. In particular, the Planetary Volatiles Extractor could be initially used as a reconnaissance tool to map and characterize volatiles distribution around the area before deploying ISRU plants. Depending on the required water (or other volatiles) production levels per day, the PVEx could be used to extract water and other volatiles to support human habitats,for LOX/LH2 propulsion systems to enable return of humans or samples back to Earth or for a journey to the outer reaches of Space.

Because of the system’s flexibility, the PVEx could be deployed on any extraterrestrial body that contains volatiles or hydrated minerals: Mars, the Moon, Europa, Enceladus, Asteroids, Comets, Phobos and Deimos. If the system were to be deployed on the Moon or NEOs, the water produced by the system could be returned to the ISS.

NASA’s near term goal is to send humans to Mars. As such, PVEx could not only be used as a reconnaissance system, but also as a production plant to mine and process water and other volatiles. These would need to be mined and stored before human arrival to the surface.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The PVEx system could be used by several commercial companies that are interested in In Situ Resource Utilization for financial gain. These include Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries targeting Asteroids and Shackleton Energy Corp, targeting the Moon (see letter of interest from Shackleton Energy section 13). The ultimate goal of SpaceX is to establish human presence on Mars. As such, SpaceX would also benefit from mature volatile extraction technology.

Brining water from the Moon or NEOs could be very profitable given that launching water from Space costs ~$20,000/liter. The major market for water could be human consumption (e.g. once Bigelow Space Hotels are established) or refueling of existing satellites. The latter is of particular interest, since satellites come to the end of their life not because of electronics, or power, but because there are running out of fuel for station keeping. NASA and industry have been developing in space refueling technology, the first step in enabling refueling of satellites.

Other non-NASA applications include robotic acquisition of volatiles as well as soil and liquid samples from hazardous environments: chemical spills, nuclear waste, oil spills.

NASA SBIR PHASE II AWARD

Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Proposal Title: Development of a Hermetically Sealed Canister for Sample Return Missions
Subtopic Title: Contamination Control and Planetary Protection

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Kris Zacny

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

The goal of this project is to develop hermetic sealing technologies which can be used for the return of samples from planetary bodies such as Mars, the Moon, Comets and Asteroids, with a primary focus on induction brazing as a means of sealing a Mars Sample Return Orbiting Sample (OS) after it has been recovered by the MSR Orbiter spacecraft.

During Phase 1, Honeybee Robotics investigated several techniques for providing hermetic sealing such as Knife Edge, Shape Memory Alloy, C-ring, O-ring and Induction Brazing. These were identified as promising hermetic sealing approaches which can be applied to Sample Return (SR) missions, such as the Flagship Mars SR, New Frontiers (NF) Comet SR and the Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin SR, identified by the NRC Decadal Survey as the primary missions for the next decade. The sealing system would be used to store samples of rocks, soils, atmospheric gas, ice or icy-soil.

Based on Phase 1, we determined that a brazing approach is the optimum method of sealing planetary samples and should be used as a primary seal. Knife edges and O-rings should be pursued as secondary and redundant (backup) seals, respectively. Therefore, we propose to design and fabricate hermetic sealing canisters and test their hermeticity to achieve leak rates of 10-7 atm cc/sec He. The canisters will be exposed to dust and thermal cycles to reach TRL 5/6 at the end of the Phase 2.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Future robotic astrobiology and geology missions such as Mars Sample Return, as well as Lunar, Comet and Asteroid sample return missions will benefit greatly from the ability to hermetically seal samples in a dusty environment. A robust sample canister that is dust tolerant will greatly reduce the complexity of support equipment that may otherwise be required to clean containment vessels prior to sealing.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Terrestrial uses of robust hermetically sealed containers might include telerobotic inspection and sampling of hazardous materials: chemical, biological, or nuclear. Tele-operated robots can go into many hazardous areas which humans cannot. These robots could be outfitted with canisters with hermetic seals which function in the presence of dirt, dust and chemicals. The canisters could be robotically filled with hazardous material, and hermetically sealed using the induction brazing technique. For example, when using a double walled cylinder approach, the outer contaminated sleeve could be separated, leaving the internal chamber sealed and safe for human handling and laboratory analysis.