The New Mars Rover Would Be Crippled Without These Instruments

Steve GorevanHoneybee co-founder and chairman, left, with Curiosity.

Photo: Honeybee Robotics

At 1:31 a.m. EDT on Aug. 6, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission will place a 2,000-pound robot, named Curiosity, on the surface of Mars.The car-size rover will spend 687 Earth days (one Martian year) studying the Red Planet’s environment and analysing samples drilled or scooped from the ground — and to do this, the mobile machine needs some of the most advanced gear ever used on Mars. This is the kind of stuff you can’t just buy in a catalogue.  

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For two of these special instruments, NASA turned to Honeybee Robotics, a development firm headquartered in Manhattan. Building on previous work for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Honeybee developed the Sample Manipulation System (SMS) and the Dust Removal Tool (DRT). These tools are critical to investigating Mars’ ability to sustain life — in the past and present.  

We recently spoke with Honeybee’s co-founder and chairman, Stephen Gorevan, who was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., preparing for Curiosity’s historic landing. 

Business Insider: Can you describe the scene in the control room when Curiosity lands? 

The tension is incredible. There’s very little information coming from the actual landing, but we will hear a series of tones. And when we hear those tones, it means first we’ve hit the atmosphere. A few minutes later the parachute deploys. Every event will be indicated by a tone. If we don’t hear a tone, something has gone wrong. These steps continue all the way down to the surface. It’s going to be breakneck, hair-raising descent. Even more exciting than a rocket launch. Because a rocket launch is a single event and it’s over in about a minute. But this thing will happen in about 10 minutes in a series of events that all have to go just right.

What if you don’t hear those tones?

I think about it all the time. I can’t help it. That would be an issue, to say the least. Those tones are sent directly to Earth, so we it wouldn’t be a communication glitch if we didn’t hear them. If we don’t hear them, I can’t imagine. It would be a hard time.

What concerns do you have about your own equipment?  

I do think about it unfortunately because my mind can’t stop thinking about every aspect of the early parts of this mission, including our equipment. We have two instruments on Curiosity — the Sample Manipulation System and the Dust Removal Tool. 

The SMS is like a carousal that takes samples and delivers it to scientific instruments. Imagine sending a merry-go-round to Mars, only multiplied in complexity times 10 because of all the precision involved. It has to undergo the rigour of a launch, the bashing of a landing and the extreme environment of Mars. About 10 days into the landed mission, our equipment will be tested to see if it’s working. If our equipment doesn’t work, we’ve lost a tremendous amount of scientific capability on the rover.  

What was the biggest challenge faced in building the equipment?

One of the biggest challenges is getting it to operate in a fail-safe way. There’s all different commands that you could send to the Sample Manipulation System. One could imagine sending it a command that could break it. The biggest challenge was to make sure that no matter what you told it to do, it would always be safe. For example, if the power went down on the rover, we wouldn’t know where the last sample was. We’d need a way to find ourselves in the dark. You have to make sure there are no anomalies, no wrong commands, no power failures, no other parts of the rover that could go wrong and somehow disable our system. 

How do you prepare the rover for space on Earth? 

It’s one four-letter word — and that’s called Test. We test it over and over and over. We’ve literally been testing it for years. We’re testing it right now. We’ll continue to test even after we’ve landed. We have a duplicate down on Earth at the NASA’s Space Flight centre where we’ll try to duplicate the weather we’re seeing on Mars, even the angle that the rover is sitting at on Mars. We’ll test the entry, descent and landing system. We throw things out of helicopters to see how the parachute works. We eliminate the possibly of an error by testing the hell out of everything. 

The landing is exciting all by itself, but what can we look forward to after the landing? 

The things after landing that will be very exciting are the first images that start to come down. We’ll see a fantastic landscape — unlike anything we’ve ever seen on Mars before because we’re landing inside a very large crater. We’re going to see images of this crater wall and then we’re going to start driving. We’ve got a very sophisticated payload that’s going to try to assess whether Mars was a habitable place for life in the past. I would say, stay tuned. The landing is going to be exciting, but who knows what we’ll hit when we get there. 

Honeybee co-founder and chairman Steve Gorevan, left, stands proudly with the Mars Science Laboratory during testing in July. The rover is about the size of a Mini Cooper.

The Curiosity Rover's Earthbound twin, used for testing purposes, is shown here. It's getting ready to use the Dust Removal Tool designed and built by Honeybee Robotics.

A closer look at the Dust Removal Tool, which will remove layers of dust from Martian rocks so scientists can better understand Mars geology. The DRT is based on part of Honeybee's Rock Abrasion Tool, built for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and the first machine ever to get a look inside rocks on another planet.

The Sample Manipulation System is the core part of the Sample Analysis at Mars, a suite of instruments that will analyse samples of material collected and delivered by the rover's arm.

Honeybee engineers build and test the Sample Manipulation System in the company's clean room.

Protective clothing is designed to prevent contamination of the hardware from any organic materials. This would affect readings taken once the rover's sensitive instruments begin analysing Mars samples.

The SMS acts as a robotic laboratory assistant, moving samples to one of three instruments designed to test for the habitability of Mars.

Honeybee engineers integrate the Sample Manipulation System into the larger Sample Analysis at Mars suite in the clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight centre.

By most measures, the Sample Analysis at Mars unit is the most advanced set of instruments ever sent to another planet.

Honeybee also designed and built the Rock Abrasion Tools for the Mars Exploration Rovers. Here's a little model they have on display in their New York City office.

The Curiosity will bring us more spectacular images

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