PlanetVac is a pneumatic approach to sample acquisition which can be customized to fit sampling on almost any planetary body, including planets, moons, asteroids, and comets. All that is required is a degree of loose surface material. In an ideal configuration, PlanetVac could be mounted to, or replace, one or more of the foot pads of a lander. Once in contact with the surface, pneumatic nozzles deliver a puff or stream of compressed air, lifting regolith and directing it to an on-board instrument for analysis, or bringing surface-level soil, debris or regolith to a canister for a sample return mission.
PlanetVac is a simple, lightweight approach that minimizes moving pieces, reducing the risk of equipment malfunction in dusty areas where traditional lubricants do not function. A typical lander could include several samplers, providing system redundancy and greater reliability.
Pneumatic sampling has been researched at Honeybee Robotics for over a decade, and there have been many variations on the PlanetVac concept. In 2013, with the help of The Planetary Society, Honeybee built a Mars Sample Return concept and tested it in an environment like Mars, where is delivered samples to a sample return vehicle and to an onboard “instrument”.
In 2018, Honeybee Robotics teamed with The Planetary Society to put a newer version of PlanetVac on the Masten Xodiac Lander for a performance test on a suborbital flight in the Mojave desert. The test was a success, resulting in collection of over 300 grams of material in a single sampling event and proving the design can withstand the intense heat, vibration, and landing loads of a rocket touch-down.