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The Space Issue

The Mission to Sample a Comet Going 84,000 Miles Per Hour—and Return

The scientist behind the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity wants to send a probe to a ball of ice and dust to learn about the origins of life.

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Illustration: Emmanuel Shiu

Steve Squyres was feeling restless. It was late fall 2013, and the semester was wrapping up at Cornell, where he’d been a professor for more than 25 years. As head of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover mission, he’d just marked 10 years tracking Spirit and Opportunity, two six-wheeled robots that went to the red planet. They’d been designed to roam the surface for just 90 days, scratching and drilling into rocks and examining soil in search of evidence of water. Nearly a decade later, Opportunity was still rumbling along. Squyres wasn’t bored by its persistence, but there wasn’t much left for him to do.

He called Stephen Gorevan, a longtime friend and a co-founder of Honeybee Robotics Ltd., which specializes in drills and sampling tools for planets and smaller bodies. Squyres had included a Honeybee tool on the rovers, and he figured Gorevan might have something new and cool to show him. Squyres proposed a visit to the company’s New York headquarters.