Every morning this week, Justin Spring and Sean Yoon got up and drove down a bumpy dirt road. They piled their packs onto their backs and hiked 45 minutes up a hill. Then they stepped onto Mars.
“You go from brown and black and white rocks to suddenly red. Everything’s red,” Spring said. “It’s like we stepped out of Greenland and stepped onto Mars. But if you looked up, you saw the glacier. It’s like wait, what, where am I?”
Spring and Yoon are project engineers at Honeybee Robotics, a spacecraft and robotics company that develops drills for NASA’s Mars rovers. Before Honeybee can send their drills to Mars, they have to test them in some of the most remote locations on Earth.
This week, field testing brought Spring and Yoon to western Greenland. Within sight of a glacier, river and green valley, they work on Martian-like rocks to test a drill that collects methane. Cracks in the rocks contain bacteria, which produce methane. Finding methane beneath Mars’ surface could indicate a similar form of life. Similar drills could be left in multiple locations on Mars and regularly test for the gas.
“We don’t know what’s making that methane; whether it’s an organic processes or not, whether these are bacterial processes,” exploration and technology director Kris Zacny said. “Planetary biologists thinking if you can find extremophiles … three kilometers below Earth in fissures, there are lots of reasons to think there is something similar on Mars. You just need to get down below where the environment is less harsh.”
Biogeochemist Lisa Pratt, lead investigator on research funded by NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets program, selects each drill site carefully. She looks for large cracks in the rocks that meet in a V shape, which usually indicates they’ll find some methane if they drill right at the meeting point. Pratt can also identify the type of rock at the drill site, which determines how difficult the drilling process will be.
The two-meter-long sniffers take roughly a day and a half to insert. The Honeybee team must continuously check their equipment for wear and clear out debris. Moisture can slow the process even further. They spend the first day drilling as far as they can, and then “stop, pack up our gear, hike back down the hill, come back home and eat way too much because we feel like we deserve it,” Spring said.
“Bringing out our gear here, which has a resemblance to Mars conditions, can definitely help us prepare for an actual Mars campaign,” Yoon said. “This is a test for us. It’ll greatly help us in the near future in developing better machinery, better robotics and better drills for our company.”
Beyond drills that sniff for methane, Honeybee has been working on a system that could remove core samples from Martian rocks and cache them for later return to Earth. A team of scientists recently revealed the major goals for NASA’s planned 2020 Mars rover, one of which is collecting rock core samples.
“People have been talking about it since the 60s,” Zacny said. “Whenever they did high level analysis, Congress had sticker shock and would shut down the idea of bringing samples back from Mars. Only now there is a green light to put on the surface of Mars a rover with caching capabilities.”
Honeybee is also developing a system that harvests water from asteroids, which could allow humans to travel farther in space. They also recently completed a study for NASA into if it is economically feasible to mine asteroids for natural resources like nickel. Another drill is meant to dig indefinitely deep into the ice of Europa, a Jupiter moon thought to contain a liquid ocean beneath its solid ice exterior. Honeybee is testing the Europa drill in gypsum quarries.
“We stay away from the assembly line, cookie-cutter stuff,” Zacny said.