Honeybee Robotics is Answering Questions About the Universe

By Ines Tamaddon / December 3, 2018

Honeybee Robotics, a New Lab member company, creates the most advanced robotic systems for the toughest environments on earth and in-orbit. In 2025, they’ll be reaching new horizons—interstellar space.

Comets have long been studied by astronomers and scientists as key astro biological origins that can provide clues to the birth of our solar system. Because these icy particles live in heliopause, the cool, dense region between the stars known as interstellar space, they’ve been difficult to reach.

It is believed that daily cometary bombardment created the Earth’s oceans and first sources of water. Experts also speculate that comets even assisted in life formation. However, unlike Earth and other planets, comets have remained unchanged, which is what makes them so interesting to the scientific community, explains CEO and founder of Honeybee Robotics Steve Gorevan.

From Mercury to CAESAR

Gorevan and his team specialize in planetary exploration. Currently, they are building critical systems for CAESAR, NASA’s proposed 2025 mission to extract a surface sample of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (CG-67) and convey particles back to Earth for the first time in history. As Gorevan prepares for this extraordinary moment that will provide a wealth of insight into our early universe, he reflects on how working for NASA has always been a dream. “When I was in the 2nd grade my class was brought into the cafeteria for an assembly. What we were shown was the launch of one of the Mercury astronauts into orbit. I was completely hooked,” Gorevan describes.

24 years later, what began as a research project in 1986 has evolved into Honeybee’s critical work for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Honeybee has developed systems for drilling, coring, and physical sampling for every Martian rover since 2003. “Today, Honeybee is recognized around the world as a premier supplier of specialized spacecraft subsystems,” Gorevan boasts. “It seems as if a wishful dream set off in that cafeteria many years ago has been fulfilled.”

Honeybee’s Comet Surface Sample Return Probe prototype for CAESAR is currently in testing. This system will be located on the end of the manipulator arm as a “touch-and-go” sampling maneuver.

In this next venture, which Gorevan states as their most ambitious yet, Honeybee is building the Sample Acquisition System for CAESAR. The probe, which extracts a sample from the comet surface, uses nitrogen jets to inject loose particles into a hermetically sealed container. “Once we have 100 grams, we will begin the journey home,” confirms Gorevan. Easy. Right? No.

Sustainable Space Travel

CAESAR’s launch to eventual return will likely take up to 12 years with comet extraction, the most critical period, encompassing less than 10% of that time frame. Gorevan estimates scouting and tagging the landing sites will take between 3 – 6 months with sampling a mere 5 – 15 seconds. With only three shots at extraction, years of preparation will have included hundreds of drop tests at NASA’s Zero Gravity Facility in Ohio to confirm this level of accuracy.

CAESAR is drawing on a wealth of logistical data and research made possible by Rosetta, which concluded its 10 year journey to land on CG-67 in 2016. Rosetta’s probe has been examining how environmental changes evolve as the comet moves closer to the sun. Reaching one step further, Honeybee, NASA, and those involved are optimizing against Rosetta’s findings that would otherwise require significant time and monetary investments.

Through the European Space Agency, who led the Rosetta mission, scientists have also confirmed CG-67 is in an elongated elliptical orbit and moving around the sun at 28,000 mph. In response, CAESAR will use solar electric propulsion to draw energy from the sun and emit a steady stream of electric ions that gradually propels the spacecraft to reach CG-67’s speed. This technique allows the spacecraft to sustain greater distance with less fuel, driving NASA to reach even greater milestones.

Leaving Earth

While scientists eagerly await CAESAR’s findings, technologists invested in civilian exploration are also paying close attention. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ company, is forging significant breakthroughs to send tourists to Mars, while SpaceX is also making space travel an affordable, accessible concept. Life in space is no longer abstract, but a tangible reality many are eager to check off in their lifetime. Understanding astro biological factors, such as comets, make progress even more plausible.

PlanetVac is an alternative sample collection tool by The Planetary Society, one of Honeybee’s partners. It is built to collect dirt, rocks, and regolith samples from planetary surfaces, such as Mars, through a single valve that relies on the movement of gas. Photo courtesy of The Planetary Society.

In conjunction with cometary analysis, Honeybee is also building instruments for the anticipated Mars Sample Return (MSR) 2020 mission that will deliver cached rock samples to Earth. “People believe what Honeybee is doing right now is a reconnaissance of Mars to eventually send people there,” Gorevan notes. “We’re trying to determine the lay of the land and record where things are; we’re finding water in ice form on Mars, which is essential for any type of colonization.” Farther out, but still in sight, is asteroid mining. If comet particles can be extracted, Honeybee can eventually send mining devices to acquire rare Earth metals, Gorevan alludes; thus informing new valuable markets both on Earth and in-orbit.

As CAESAR begins to answer questions examined for centuries, Honeybee Robotics is aiding in the next generation of deep space study. By 2037, new areas of research and opportunities will have emerged and space may no longer be as vast. Some of us may even be there.

Honeybee Robotics is a New Lab member company residing at New Lab’s flagship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Learn more about membership opportunities.

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