An intrepid robot designed to search for signs of alien life in our solar system has excelled in its first road-test in Antarctica.
A team from NASA spent three weeks at Australia’s Casey research station, testing the robot under the Antarctic sea-ice.
The buoyant robot ‘floats’ against the underside of the sea-ice to move around on two wheels.
NASA scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr Kevin Hand, said the Antarctic mission was a huge success.
“We put the robot under the sea-ice on 4 occasions and were able to test its full mechanical capabilities,” said Dr Hand.
“We even left it hanging out under the ice for a 48-hour sleep-over,” he said.
“What we saw was just stunning, the sea-ice algae dangling down like little chandeliers, carpets of thick algae communities and gas bubbles under the ice.”
The robot has two independent wheels to manoeuvre along the under-side of the ice and suite of science instruments to take samples of the ice-water interface.
NASA Lead Engineer, Dr Andy Klesh, said the robot was able to collect a range of valuable data.
“The under-side of the ice was quite flat, so the robot could roam about amassing information on dissolved oxygen, conductivity, temperature and depth,” Dr Klesh said.
The Antarctic road-tests will now inform changes to the design of the robot.
“We learned from navigating some of the cracks that an additional wheel, like a tricycle, might be useful as well as adding thrusters to it, so we could vary our buoyancy when needed,” Dr Hand said.
NASA is preparing to travel to Jupiter within the next decade to better understand the planet and investigate one of its icy moons, Europa.
It’s hoped a future version of this robot will be on the mission to explore the salty oceans of Europa and potentially find life beneath its 10 kilometre-thick icy crust.