A Busy Year Ahead in 2014

It’s shaping up to be a very busy year for the Honeybee engineers. At the start of 2014, we have four field trials for our space drills and planetary sampling systems on the books. We’re planning to share details about each mission as they unfold, but here’s a sneak peek at what lies ahead:

1. Greenland
In March and April 2014, Honeybee plans to return to Greenland in search of methane, in a test called Greenland Emission of Trace Gases as an Analogue for Methane on Mars (GETGAMM). Led by Dr. Lisa Pratt of Indiana University, the GETGAMM mission includes members from Princeton, Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Honeybee Robotics. We’re helping the team continue its three-year field campaign to look into the activity of microbes that live in bedrock.

We’ll be exploring bedrock boreholes (0.5 to 2 meters depth) and soil pipe wells (0.5 to 1 meters depth) that intersect permafrost environments, which researchers believe have conditions analogous to Mars environments. Honeybee’s contribution is providing our Sniffer bits (which are gas-sniffing drill strings), and the autonomous drill to place them 2 meters down into the rocky ground in search of trace gases associated with life. The team will be inserting the sniffer bits using both our Icebreaker 2 planetary drill and by hand with a Hilti drill in numerous locations. After placing the bits, the team will analyze daily and seasonal variations in the concentration and isotopic composition of gasses associated with microorganisms that live in rock: methane, ethane, and hydrogen sulfide. It’s possible we will return later in the summer to measure how the change in season affects the release of gasses associated with microbial life.

2. Atacama
In May 2014, Honeybee returns to the harsh, arid Atacama Desert in Chile in support of the Carnegie Mellon/ SETI Institute–Carl Sagan Center/NASA Ames-led “Life in the Atacama” (LITA) project. This project uses our one-meter LITA Mars drill mounted on Carnegie Mellon’s Zöe rover to explore the distribution and abundance of microbial life in one of the most arid deserts on Earth.

Last year, Zöe autonomously traversed and explored dozens of kilometers, and successfully captured samples from the drill, delivering them to the science analysis instruments. We’ve learned a lot since that mission, and the team’s new goals for this year are to enhance Zöe’s autonomous navigation and deep subsurface sample collection – as well as to continue characterizing the “ground truth” of the environment we’re exploring. All these tests are designed to enhance the performance of the next rovers we send to Mars.

3. Devon Island
During the height of the summer, Honeybee engineers will be traveling to Devon Island in the Artic, which is one of the best Mars analog environments on the planet. In support of NASA Ames’s Brian Glass, Honeybee is deploying the Icebreaker 2 drill from a stationary platform to enhance the design of this autonomous 1-meter class drill designed for Chris McKay’s Icebreaker mission. We may even have a chance to say hello to members of NASA’s Haughton-Mars project, which will be in its 18th season.

4. California
Our final trip of the year is scheduled for November. I don’t want to give too much away because this is for a project Honeybee hasn’t officially announced yet. It’s very exciting, though – we’ll be testing a very deep planetary drill. Whereas our LITA/Icebreaker drills penetrate 1 meter, we’re looking at drilling more than 10x farther with this upcoming test! So stay tuned, and we’ll share more as soon as we can.

Finally, I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has been following this blog and commenting. Some of the field test conditions can be harsh and demanding, so it means a lot to see your support!

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