Water is essential to human spaceflight missions. It is an immensely valuable resource to sustain astronauts, and as a building block for rocket fuel or other valuable compounds. This is why In Situ Resource Utilization, or ISRU, is so attractive to both exploration and commercial ventures: using local resources means missions can start with lower supplies, or extend their missions far beyond what is possible with materials on-board. Autonomously harvesting water from asteroids, however, is a nontrivial process for space mining technology. For more information see the IDTechEx report on Mobile Robots and Drones in Material Handling and Logistics 2018-2038.
Designed for a mission to water-rich asteroids (Carbonaceous Chondrites), Honeybee Robotics' Spider Water Extraction System is a spacecraft that drills and acquires icy soil samples, extracts the water for later use, and disposes dry soil to prepare for another round of sample collection. The architecture enables each drill to generate significant down-force in the absence of gravity — the auger drills mounted on each leg provide anchoring force as they sample for water-rich material.
The Spider Water Extraction System, developed as part of the World Is Not Enough (WINE) program, is designed to be resilient, with multiple systems integrated into spacecraft lander legs provide higher processing volume and system redundancy. The architecture provides a combination of low mass and high strength to drill into tough icy and mineral composites that can be as hard as concrete, whether the material is hydrated or free water. It has demonstrated the ability to gather water from Carbonaceous Chondrite analog materials (hydrates) under thermal vacuum conditions.
The Spider Water Extraction System has two modes of mobility on an asteroid, with the ability to walk across the surface and also hop using steam propulsion (with propulsion powered by water mined from the target asteroid). As such, it could be used as a pre-mining surveying technology or as a mining platform on its own. Thanks to the NASA SBIR program, the Spider will achieve TRL 5 in 2019. The project is a collaborative effort between NASA KSC Swampworks, Honeybee Robotics and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Source and top image: Honeybee Robotics