Honeybee Robotics Developing Prospector Spacecraft That Can Refuel Itself

honeybee_roboticsNASA has selected Honeybee Robotics for four Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and one Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR) Phase I contracts, including one that would help develop a resource prospecting spacecraft capable of refueling itself using in-situ resources.

The five proposals include:

  • The World is Not Enough (WINE): Harvesting Local Resources for Eternal Exploration of Space (STTR)
  • Planetary Volatiles Extractor for In Situ Resource Utilization (SBIR)
  • Development of a Hermetically Sealed Canister for Sample Return Missions (SBIR)
  • Lunar Heat Flow Probe (SBIR)
  • Miniaturized System-in-Package Motor Controller for Spacecraft and Orbital Instruments (SBIR)

WINE, which is being done with the University of Central Florida in Orlando, involves a 3D-printed CubeSat that would be able to refuel itself by extracting in-situ resources. The spacecraft would be able to land on an asteroid or moon, examine the location, and fly to another location using the water it extracted in its thruster system.

“NASA can use this system to prospect for mining that will support Mars exploration missions. It can also use the system for any planetary exploration when there is a known water resource close to the surface,” according to the proposal. “The 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.”

Under the Planetary Volatiles Extractor for In Situ Resource Utilization proposal, Honeybee would examine two methods for extracting water known as sniffer and corer. The company will compare these techniques with the Mobile In-Situ Water Extractor (MISWE), which Honeybee developed under a previous SBIR agreement with NASA.

At the end of the Phase 1, we will trade all 3: Sniffer, Corer, MISME and select one for further development in Phase 2,” the proposal states. “After the Sniffer and the Corer tests, a trade study will be conducted to compare Sniffer vs Corer vs MISME approaches. The trade study will include figure of merits (e.g. extraction efficiency etc), potential for scaling production up, easy of deploying on more than one planetary body, as well as mission implementation challenges and risks.”

NASA also selected for funding Honeybee’s proposal to develop a hermetically sealed canister that would be used to return soil samples from the moon, Mars, asteroids and comets.

“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,” the proposal states. “This will contribute to reductions in mass and program cost, making sample return missions more feasible.”

A fourth project involves the development of an advanced lunar heat flow probe to measure conditions on the moon.

“In addition to measuring heat flow on the Moon, the probe can be deployed on the future Discovery- and New Frontier-class robotic missions to Mars, and other planetary bodies,” according to the proposal. “The instrument may be used by astronauts on Sortie human lunar missions. The percussive penetrometer can also be used to deploy other sensors, such as Neutron and Gamma spectrometer and Electrical Properties probe.”

The final proposal is for a miniaturized system-in-package motor controller for spacecraft and orbital instruments. The controller could be used in a variety of government and private spacecraft, including CubeSats.

Phase I feasibility studies are for six months and a maximum of $125,000. Firms that successfully complete this phase are eligible to submit a proposal for Phase II proposal, during which selectees will expand on the results of the developments in Phase I. Phase III awards examine the commercialization of Phase II results and requires the use of private sector, non-SBIR, funding.

The five selected proposals are below.

The World is Not Enough (WINE):
Harvesting Local Resources for Eternal Exploration of Space

Subtopic: Regolith Resource Robotic

Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

University of Central Florida
Orlando, FL

Principal Investigator/Program Manager

Philip Metzger
Orlando, FL

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

The paradigm of exploration is changing. Smaller, smarter, and more efficient systems are being developed that could do as well as large, expensive, and heavy systems in the past. The ‘science’ fiction becomes reality fueled by advances in computing, materials, and nano-technology. These new technologies found their way into CubeSats – a booming business in the 21st century. CubeSats are no longer restricted to aerospace companies. Universities and even High Schools can develop them.

The World is Not Enough (WINE) is a new generation of CubeSats that take advantage of ISRU to explore space for ever. The WINE takes advantage of existing CubeSat technology and combines it with 3D printing technology and a water extraction system developed under NASA SBIR, called MISWE . 3D printing enables development of cold gas thrusters as well as tanks that fit perfectly within the available space within the CubeSat. The MISWE allows capture and extraction of water, and takes advantage of the heat generated by the CubeSat electronics system. The water is stored in a cold gas thruster’s tank and used for propulsion. Thus, the system can use the water that it has just extracted for prospecting to refuel and fly to another location. This replenishing of propellants extends the mission by doing ISRU (living off the land) even during the prospecting phase.

In Phase 1, we plan to test and investigate critical technologies such as (1) sample acquisition, (2) volatiles capture, and (3) 3D-printed cold gas thrusters that use water vapor including the organic and particulate contaminants that are inevitable during the early stages of asteroid mining. The engine is similar to a Solar Thermal Engine but scaled for a CubeSat. In Phase 2, we propose to develop a testbed of the critical systems and to demonstrate these onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA can use this system to prospect for mining that will support Mars exploration missions. It can also use the system for any planetary exploration when there is a known water resource close to the surface. It can be used to explore the Moon, Near Earth Asteroids, Main Belt Asteroids including protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres, Mars, Europa, Titan, etc. The water propulsion technology can be adapted by NASA for its Extreme Access project to mine the permanently shadowed craters on the Moon. NASA can also use the system to test water/thermal propulsion at ISS. The results of that testing may lead to a new class of space tugs to help accomplish missions in cis-lunar space until a full water electrolysis capability has been established.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The 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. Bringing water from the asteroids could be very profitable given that launching water from space costs ~$20,000/liter. The major market for water could be human consumption and radiation shielding (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 in space.

The technology could also be applied to the Moon and used by Shackleton Energy Corp., company interested in mining water and delivering it for refueling spacecrafts at Geostationary Orbit and Geotransfer Orbit. The International Space University 2012 Summer School demonstrated the commercial viability of boosting spacecraft to Geostationary Orbit via water-based propulsion.

With the advent of small satellites (nanosats and CubeSats) one can imagine that these satellites could be able to stop at an Asteroid, refueling, and continue exploring.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Analytical Methods
  • Characterization
  • Conversion
  • Isolation/Protection/Shielding (Acoustic, Ballistic, Dust, Radiation, Thermal)
    Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Prototyping
  • Resource Extraction
  • Simulation & Modeling
  • Sources (Renewable, Nonrenewable)

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

Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Principal Investigator/Program Manager
Dr Kris Zacny
Pasadena, CA

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

Under previous SBIR Phase 1, we demonstrated MISME system to TRL 3. This system can be used on Mars, the Moon, as well as Asteroids (a Spider concept with self- anchoring approach was developed).

We propose to focus this Phase I on the two approaches of water extraction: Sniffer and Corer. At the end of the Phase 1, we will trade all 3: Sniffer, Corer, MISME and select one for further development in Phase 2.

After the Sniffer and the Corer tests, a trade study will be conducted to compare Sniffer vs Corer vs MISME approaches. The trade study will include figure of merits (e.g. extraction efficiency etc), potential for scaling production up, easy of deploying on more than one planetary body, as well as mission implementation challenges and risks. During this time we will also work closely with our COTR to determine mission preferences. The end result will be selection of the best approach.

During this trade study we will also consider different properties of planetary regoliths as well as environmental conditions that would affect excavation and processing (e.g. poorly sorted particle size distribution and agglutinates on the Moon which make regolith very cohesive, perchlorates and clays on Mars which make soil very sticky etc).

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

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

Because of the system 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. For example if the system were to be deployed on the Moon or Near Earth Objects, the water produced by the system could be returned to ISS.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The 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.

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 in space.

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.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Composites
  • Conversion
  • Fuels/Propellants
  • Metallics
  • Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Pressure & Vacuum Systems
  • Prototyping

Development of a Hermetically Sealed Canister
for Sample Return Missions

Subtopic: Contamination Control and Planetary Protection

Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Phil Chu

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

The goal of the Phase I is to perform bread boarding and testing of the promising sealing techniques as well as perform a system level study to determine implementation challenges within actual mission architectures. The tests will be conducted on clean and ‘dirty’ seals. The results of the Phase I will be one or more options for hermetic sealing. During some approaches (Shape memory Alloy and brazing) additional data will be acquired to determine the temperature rise of the inner sample chamber.

In the follow on Phase II of the proposed investigation, we will design and fabricate multiple high fidelity prototypes of the hermetic sealing canister and sealing system. The size and shape of the canisters will be designed to fit the requirements of any proposed or current sample return missions, such as Mars 2020. These canisters will include thermal insulation to protect and preserve volatile material within the samples, and will be optimized for mass reduction. We will test the hermeticity of the canister seal when exposed to dust accumulation, as well as thermal cycling, shock and vibration environments. This testing will result in a technology readiness level for the sample canister and sealing of TRL6 at the end of the Phase II investigation. We will also develop preliminary spacecraft requirements (mass, power, volume, etc.) for the sealing system.

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. These missions will require long periods of time where the samples are either in transit back to Earth, or awaiting pickup. 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. This will contribute to reductions in mass and program cost, making sample return missions more feasible.

In addition during future human exploration of the Moon, Mars, and Asteroids, astronauts will be collecting samples for earth return (in a similar manner as Apollo astronauts). The seals will therefore be directly applicable to those missions as well.

Although originally not designed for other applications, one can imagine that test data and certain parts of the technology could potentially be used for space suite designs, spacecraft airlocks, and fluid transfer lines (as in on-orbit refueling).

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Terrestrial uses of robust hermetically sealed containers might include telerobotic inspection and sampling of hazardous materials. 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.

These canisters could also be used in field geology work, where cleanliness is not available. Samples could be obtained in the field without the need to protect sensitive sealing surfaces. These samples would be hermetically sealed and free of contamination for the journey back to the laboratory for analysis.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Characterization
  • Coatings/Surface Treatments
  • Machines/Mechanical Subsystems
  • Metallics
  • Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Pressure & Vacuum Systems
  • Prototyping

Lunar Heat Flow Probe
Subtopic: In Situ Sensors and Sensor Systems for Lunar and Planetary Science

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr Kris Zacny

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

To accurately determine endogenic heat flow, both thermal gradient and thermal conductivity measurements are needed. The thermal gradient measurement can be achieved by using several temperature sensors equally spaced along the length of the probe.

Thermal conductivity can be measured by one of two methods: the ‘steady state’ method or the ‘transient with a variant’ or ‘pulse heating’ method. The steady state method was used by the Apollo 15-17 missions , whereas the pulse heating method was developed by Lister (1979) after the Apollo period In the steady state heating method, heat is applied to the regolith around the probe for a long period of time and thermal conductivity is derived from the rate at which temperature rises. This will affect the measurement associated with the diurnal and annual wave as it adds a significant amount of heat to the regolith, which will take a very long time to dissipate. In the pulse heating method, more heat is applied for a short duration of time. The temperature of the probe increases instantaneously and slowly falls off as the heat dissipates into the regolith after the heater is turned off. In this case, the thermal conductivity is derived from the cooling rate. In the pulse heating method, less heat is required and less time is required for a measurement. For the most accurate results, sensors must extend below the depth of the multi-year thermal fluctuation detected during the Apollo missions (>3 m). If the hole is deep enough to avoid the effects of the insolation, the geothermal gradient obtained in a lower portion of the hole should accurately reflect the endogenic heat flow. The spacing between sensors should be small (approximately 30 cm), because thermal conductivity of the regolith is heavily affected by its texture, which varies with depth. Determining the in situ heat flow, as well as the site-specific thermal wave depths, requires that measurements be taken over long durations (6-8 years).

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The National Research Council’s 2011 Decadal Survey on planetary sciences recommended performing heat flow measurements on network geophysical missions to the Moon. The heat flow probe therefore meets payload requirements for the International Lunar Networks.

In addition to measuring heat flow on the Moon, the probe can be deployed on the future Discovery- and New Frontier-class robotic missions to Mars, and other planetary bodies. The instrument may be used by astronauts on Sortie human lunar missions. The percussive penetrometer can also be used to deploy other sensors, such as Neutron and Gamma spectrometer and Electrical Properties probe.

Since the penetration rate relates to soil’s bearing strength, the tool could also provide geotechnical measurements (incl. in situ density) of lunar subsurface to a depth of 3 m.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Non-NASA applications include measuring of heat flow in areas on earth, where optimal thermal isolation of heaters/temperature sensors is of paramount importance. These for example include areas with hydrocarbon potential. Therefore exploration companies, such as Shell or Chevron, would in particular be interested in this technology. Since these heat probes are small and can be made relatively cheaply, they can be left in earth forever. Thus, the heat flow data can be accumulated indefinitely. This in particular would be important for tracking global climate change and to understand the nature and causes of climate change. Thus, proposed heat flow deployment method, because of potential cost savings, may allow more heat flow probes being deployed around the earth. The possible ‘customer’ may for example be the International Heat Flow Commission of IASPEI, who initiated the project “Global Database of Borehole Temperatures and Climate Reconstructions”. Prof Nagihara is working with Oil and Gas companies in the Gulf of Mexico in the area of heat flow measurements and he will be the best segue for identifying commercialization opportunities.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Actuators & Motors
  • Circuits (including ICs; for specific applications, see e.g., Communications, Networking & Signal Transport; Control & Monitoring, Sensors)
  • Composites
  • Deployment
  • Metallics
  • Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Pressure & Vacuum Systems
  • Prototyping
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Thermal

Miniaturized System-in-Package Motor Controller
for Spacecraft and Orbital Instruments
Subtopic: Command, Data Handling, and Electronics

Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Andrew Maurer

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 1
End: 3

Technical Abstract

Honeybee Robotics proposes to miniaturize a heritage spaceflight motor controller using System-in-Package technology. This motor controller will be a universal solution for the control of BLDC, PMSM, and microstepping motors in robotic space systems and orbital instruments, with a form factor at least 75% smaller than comparable units.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA maintains a sizable fleet of polar-orbiting and low inclination satellites for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere, and oceans. As an example, three of the primary instruments aboard the NPOES/Suomi NPP mission require high precision motor controllers for cross-track observations (ATMS, VIIRS, and CrIS). These instruments will fly again on JPSS-1 and JPSS-2, and the latter will also add RBI, which itself also incorporates high precision scanning action. In all of these cases instruments of these types are heavy, expensive, and complex, and all such missions would benefit from mass and volume reductions in their electronics architecture – both directly from the SiP motor controller as proposed, but also from the development of SiP electronics modules in general.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

A large number of flight opportunities presently exist for nongovernmental actors to access space – many of these programs and launches are also sponsored by NASA. However these programs are frequently lower cost opportunities that make use of shared or surplus capacity on launch vehicles and satellites. This means that CubeSat and small-sat style launches are often extremely mass and volume constrained and motor controllers such as Honeybee’s standard products are orders of magnitudes too large.

Miniaturized electronics using SiP technology could be a game changer for these types of programs, as hardware that presently cannot be flown at all due to excessive mass or volume becomes feasible.

In addition several high profile commercial space ventures have mentioned planned constellations using very large numbers of satellites in constellation format (e.g. Google, Skybox, WorldVu, and recently SpaceX). Again, such programs by definition take advantage of shared launches to reduce launch costs, and so any technology that can reduce launch mass and volume may translate to enormous reductions in program cost and viability. SiP architecture could prove critical to such ventures.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Actuators & Motors
  • Circuits (including ICs; for specific applications, see e.g., Communications, Networking & Signal Transport; Control & Monitoring, Sensors)
  • Manufacturing Methods
  • Materials (Insulator, Semiconductor, Substrate)
  • Spacecraft Instrumentation & Astrionics (see also Communications; Control & Monitoring; Information Systems)

  • ThomasLMatula

    Now this is on the right track for space development, using space resources.

  • Trying to get free money for some mostly worthless toy spacecraft.

    What is needed is a large 10 or 20 ton lunar lander that can descend from a lunar “frozen” polar orbit onto an ice field, harvest water and volatiles, turn some it into propellants for an ascent to orbit to transfer water to a wet workshop. And then go back down and repeat the process till it wears out. A semi-expendable water-fuel harvester/shuttle. How big? The payload of an SLS big.

  • Paul_Scutts

    Totally agree, Ellsworth, they are just dinking around with these “toys”. They really can’t be serious about mining and resource extraction/processing with anything that is “light” for starters. But then, any worthwhile research done by these companies (PR, DSI and the like) will eventually be absorbed by the consortium that will eventually carry out the production, locating and use of the “heavy” equipment that will be necessary to do the job.