Because Jupiter’s moon, Europa, has oceans lying beneath its surface, it said to be one of the most likely places in the solar system for life to thrive – researchers just have to burrow through miles of ice to find out.
Now, NASA has unveiled a team of robotic prototypes equip with special tools to penetrate the frozen terrain and search for signs of living microbes.
The squad of ‘icebots’ includes a machine that tunnels through the icy surface, a folding boom arm, an ice gripping claw and a projectile launcher capable of grabbing samples up to 164 feet away.
Since 2015, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has been developing new technologies for use on future missions to ocean worlds.
The new prototypes were created as part of the Ocean World’s Mobility and Sensing study, a research project funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.
And each of the technologies are specifically designed to gather samples from and below the surface of an icy moon.
‘In the future, we want to answer the question of whether there’s life on the moons of the outer planets – on Europa, Enceladus and Titan,’ said Tom Cwik, who leads JPL’s Space Technology Program.
‘We’re working with NASA Headquarters to identify the specific systems we need to build now, so that in 10 or 15 years, they could be ready for a spacecraft.’
The team has conducted extensive research to understand the harsh elements these robotic helpers would face millions of miles away.
This includes temperate reaching hundreds of degrees below freezing and rovers crossing icy terrain that behaves like sand.
‘Robotic systems would face cryogenic temperatures and rugged terrain and have to meet strict planetary protection requirements,’ said Hari Nayar, who leads the robotics group that oversaw the research.