Biologically-inspired Penetration/Drilling/Sampling System for in-situ Astrobiological Studies - an ESA case study on asteroids mission


Due to ultraviolet flux in the surface layers of most solar bodies, future astrobiological research is increasingly seeking to conduct subsurface penetration, drilling and sampling to detect chemical signature for extant or extinct life. To seek a compact solution to this issue, we present a micro-penetrator concept (mass <10 kg) that is suited for planetary deployment and in situ investigation of chemical and physical properties. To draw inspiration from nature, a biomimetic drill and sampler subsystem is designed based on the working mechanism of wood wasp ovipositors to sample beneath oxidized layer for biomarker detection. One of the major limitations of sampling in low gravity environments (such as asteroids, Mars, etc) is the need for high axial force when using conventional drills. The ovipositor drill is able to address this limitation by applying reciprocating motion that requires no external force. Lab-based tests have demonstrated the feasibility of the novel drilling mechanism and its potential of improving drill efficiency without additional overhead force.

As part of the ESA project on Bionics and Space System Design, this study provides a conceptual design of the micro-penetrator targeted for a near earth asteroid mission. With bionics-enabling technology, the overall system could provide a small, light and energy efficient solution to in situ astrobiological studies, which is crucial for space engineering. Such a microprobe can be used for exploration of terrestrial-type planets or other small bodies of the solar system with the minimum of modifications.