Scientists from the US and New Zealand are teaming up to test an Antarctic robot, Icefin, that will eventually be sent to search for life on one of Jupiter’s moons.
A journey across the solar system and under the ice of Jupiter’s Europa moon requires a robot of a certain kind. To say it needs to be rugged would be an understatement. For that reason, researchers from America and New Zealand have gone to the extreme to find suitable conditions in which to test Icefin, a 3.5-metre-long autonomous vehicle designed to dive beneath ice and search for life.
The expedition is being funded by NASA with a view to providing a proof of concept that could one day be used to explore other worlds. The New Zealand research team is drilling through more than 300 metres of the Ross Ice Shelf. The American crew plan to test the Icefin prototype in the water below.
Astrobiologist Britney Schmidt and her colleagues from Georgia Tech in Atlanta have custom-built Icefin, an autonomous robot packed with cameras and sensors.
“It has the capabilities to travel and navigate on its own, but we also can take control of the vehicle with the controller,” Icefin lead engineer Matt Meister said.
Sending Icefin into space
Autonomous robots are likely candidates for exploration in uninhabitable areas. For that reason, plenty of institutions are developing ways to use machines to investigate the fallout from nuclear disasters and natural catastrophes.
But for the Icefin team and one of its backers, NASA, the aim is even bolder.
“For NASA one of the big questions is, are we alone? Is there life out there?” Assistant Professor Schmidt said. The hope is that Icefin can help to answer that question.
Learning how to operate and study in similar conditions is vital to getting that voyage off the ground. 588 million kilometres away, the question of what lies beneath Europa’s ice is waiting to be answered.
“Europa’s about the size of the Earth’s moon. There’s about 100 kilometres, maybe 80 kilometres or so of ocean, and it’s covered by somewhere between 10 and 30 kilometres of ice.”
The Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica is the closest thing on Earth to those conditions.
“We’ll be looking at the ice ocean processes that are there and going down and seeing the sea floor and seeing the organisms living there,” Asst Prof Schmidt said.
“So we’re kind of a pseudo Europa explorer in that way. These are things we would love to be able to do one day.”
Any mission towards Jupiter is still a long way off, however. The research team has suggested it might be twenty to thirty years until the project comes to fruition.
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