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The Snail

This concept for a mobile water production system on Mars was created for a proposal submitted to NASA by Michigan Technological University and Honeybee Robotics. It was subsequently awarded a $200,000 in first-year funding. 

[image] concept design by Jetportal

If mining machinery breaks down on Earth, fixing the problem is expensive, but it’s also just a phone call away. There are no mechanics on Mars; therefore, coming up with a way to mine that causes the least wear on machines was the starting point for a project occurring millions of miles away.

“How could you mine hard rock knowing these machines have to operate for many years without maintenance?” asks van Susante, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics and faculty advisor to the Mining Innovation Enterprise (MINE) team. “The problem is the metal that exerts the force to break the rock. Metal wears down or breaks off, requiring maintenance. We’re trying to eliminate that part of it. We came up with idea to use a water jet, or some other gas or liquid, that we can spray at high pressure at the rock. It’s a new idea in space that hasn’t been proposed before.”

-Co-investigator Dr. Paul Van Susante [source]


Water is the most commonly desired resource to be extracted in-situ in order to reduce consumable import from Earth. Water can be used to create rocket fuel and oxidizer (e.g. CH4 together with CO2 from the atmosphere, H2 and/or O2) as well as water for use by future astronauts. The overall objective of the proposed research is to demonstrate an innovative process for extraction of water from hard extraterrestrial soils. The process involves ‘dissolving’ and disaggregating the hard surface material under a dome using water jet to form a slurry then pumping the slurry into the water extraction system. The proposed process eliminates the hardest problem in mining: comminution, which always involves heavy equipment, significant energies, forces, and consumables (cutting tools) that are impractical for sustained extraterrestrial mining and cause a lot of dust. The proposed innovation will enable a robust, scalable, sustainable method for water extraction capable of achieving the required 0.8 kg/hr production rate.

Proposal Team

PI: Jeffrey Allen (MTU)
Co-I: Timothy Eisele (MTU)
Co-I: Ezequiel Medici (MTU)
Co-I: Paul van Susante (MTU)
Co-I: Kris Zacny (Honeybee Robotics)