New NASA mission: Robots to explore alien oceans
NASA is studying the possibility of sending robots to swim under the icy crusts of Europa and Enceladus.
NASA recently provided funding of US$ 600,000 for a study on the feasibility of sending swarms of miniature swimming robots .
Robots to navigate alien oceans
Pluto is a clear example of an oceanic world. But the stars with the most accessible oceans are Europa , Jupiter’s moon, and Enceladus , Saturn’s moon.
The interest in alien oceans is not just because of the amount of liquid water they contain, but because they might support life . Indeed, the environment in these oceans may be very similar to that on Earth, back when life began .
In such environments, water seeping through ocean floor rock is heated and chemically enriched . It is then expelled back into the ocean. Microbes can feed on this energy and in turn feed larger organisms.
These structures are known as “hydrothermal vents” and are studied at the bottom of the Earth’s ocean. In these locations, the local food web is based on chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis.
On most of these Solar System ocean worlds , the energy that heats the rocky interiors and keeps the oceans from freezing comes from the tides. This contrasts with radioactive heating of the Earth’s interior, but the interactions are similar.
The ocean on Enceladus has already been sampled by the Cassini spacecraft , through clouds of ice crystals poking out of cracks. Additionally, there is hope that NASA’s Europa Clipper mission may find similar plumes to sample when it begins a series of close flybys of Europa in the 2030s .
The problem is that going into the ocean to explore would be much more informative than simply snorting a freeze-dried sample.
Explore the ocean depths of other worlds
That’s where the concept of independent micro swimmers , or Swim, comes in. The idea is for robots to land on Europa or Enceladus, where the ice is thinnest, and use a radioactively heated probe to melt a 10-inch-wide hole .
Up to 4 dozen 12-centimeter-long, wedge-shaped swimming microbots would then be launched. Its endurance would be less than that of the Boaty McBoatface , which crossed 100 meters under the Antarctic ice.
Swim is currently just one of 5 Phase 2 studies in a series of advanced concepts under NASA’s Advanced Innovative Concepts, or INIAC, program. So there’s still a good chance that Swim won’t become a reality .
The small robots would acoustically communicate with the probe using sound waves. The probe would send the data via cable to the lander on the surface. The studio will test the prototypes in a test tank with all subsystems integrated.
Each microswimmer could perhaps scan only tens of meters from the probe, limited by battery power . But your pack action would map changes in temperature and sanity. They can even measure changes in water turbidity . This could point the direction to the nearest hydrothermal vent.
The downside is that power limitations can prevent them from carrying cameras or sensors that capture organic molecules.
A decade ago, the idea of sending a swarm of robots into space might have sounded like something out of a science fiction movie. However, everything seems to indicate that this is the path of space exploration.