NASA space robot tested in Antarctica

NASA space robot tested in Antarctica

Video transcript

Could there be life on this icy moon 628 million kilometres from Earth?

NASA/JPL Scientist, Dr Kevin Hand, “We now have good evidence that oceans, oceans of liquid water exist beneath the icy crusts of moons of the outer solar system, these oceans are the prime places to search for life.”

NASA-JPL has built a robot that could one day help find alien life on Europa, one of Jupiter’s 63 moons.

It can float under the ice and move around taking photos and samples.

NASA Engineer, Dr Dan Berisford, “The key reason for having a wheeled rover versus a free-swimming traditional submersible, is that we are really interested in the ice-water interface. When ice freezes, it excludes all sorts of salts and minerals and impurities out of the ice. Right at the ice-water interface you get this enriched layer of chemistry and it’s very conducive to life.”

The robot has been tested in the Arctic and Alaska.

Now it’s headed to Antarctica for the first time.

NASA Engineer, Dr Andy Klesh, “There are many engineering and physics challenges that we have to overcome. How do we charge it, how do we run this thing for so long? These are all the challenges we have to work through, prior to us going out to Europa.”

Once on the moon it will need to drill through 10 kilometres of icy crust to reach the salty ocean.

NASA Engineer, Dr Andy Klesh, “As we descend down through the ice we have to leave these pucks along the way to bounce acoustically these signals all the way up to the surface. And then back to Earth, some many, many millions of kilometres away.”

It’s hoped the robot will be aboard a future NASA mission to Europa.

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The Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE) sitting on the ice
The under-ice robot destined for Europa (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The surface of Europa looms large as seen from Galileo SpacecraftEuropa in cross-section showing processes from the seafloor to the surface

The Australian Antarctic Program is working with NASA this summer to test an under-ice robot which may eventually be used in a space mission to look for signs of extra-terrestrial life.

NASA is preparing to fly to Jupiter within the next decade to better understand the planet and investigate one of its icy moons, Europa.

NASA scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr Kevin Hand, said Europa is one of the most likely places to find alien life within our solar system.

“NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter in the late 1990s investigated the planet’s moons including Europa,” Dr Hand said.

“They found strong evidence there was a salty ocean beneath Europa’s thick icy crust, as well as a rocky sea floor.

“This salty ocean could hold more than twice as much water as Earth and have all the right ingredients to support simple life organisms.”

The robot, designed for a future Europa mission, is a buoyant rover with two independent wheels to manoeuvre along the under-side of the ice.

Engineer from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr Andy Klesh, said the metre-long rover will be able to roam around taking samples and pictures.

“The rover is unique in that it uses buoyancy to stick to the underside of the ice and move upside-down using wheels, so it can get up close to the ice-water interface for sensitive measurements,” Dr Klesh said.

“The robot can also stay in the one spot for long periods without having to expend energy like a submarine does.”

The challenge on Europa will be drilling through a 10-20 kilometre thick icy crust before the water can be reached to deploy the rover.

“We don’t really know how to manage this yet, but it’s likely we will have to drop transmission pucks every 100 metres to carry signals from the rover up to a surface base station, before the information is beamed back to Earth via satellite.”

The rover has already been tested in the Arctic and Alaska, but this will be it’s first Antarctic trial.

A team of four will spend three weeks at Australia’s Casey research station, testing the robotic systems under the sea-ice.

“We will trial the endurance of the rover, particularly how long the batteries can last in extreme field conditions and how it handles a variety of terrain,” Dr Klesh said.

NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper mission in 2025 and the spacecraft is expected to take several years to reach its destination.

Once there, it will take orbital measurements of the moon’s surface, to help identify landing sites and understand the global ice dynamics and composition.

If found suitable, the under-ice robot being tested in Antarctica this summer, will be considered for a future mission to the planet.