Ocean worlds in our solar system are attractive sites for searching for life beyond Earth.
Underneath a thick, icy shell, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus likely harbor oceans, scientists believe. Earth’s oceans teem with life, but is the same scenario possible on these frosty moons?
Future missions could reveal whether ocean worlds are habitable and, if so, what kind of life might exist beneath the ice. Orbiters like NASA’s Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer will fly past Europa in this decade, and a rover-sized drone called NASA’s Dragonfly will launch in 2027 to reach Titan in the 2030s.
Scientists writing the 2022 Planetary Decadal Survey have recommended sending the Orbilander mission to Enceladus, which would orbit and land on Saturn’s tiny moon in the 2050s.
But exploring the challenging terrain, as well as the oceans themselves, may require technology that seems more like science fiction.
Here are some of the concepts experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are exploring that could one day morph into a mission that dives under the ice on alien worlds.
Little is known about the frozen terrain that covers Europa and Enceladus, so any mission exploring the surfaces of these worlds may have to navigate treacherous landscapes.
A concept called SPARROW or the Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds would be able to jump right over any hazards like long ice blades called Penitentes.
“The terrain on Europa is likely very complex,” Gareth Meirion-Griffith, JPL roboticist and lead researcher on the concept, said in a statement. “It could be porous, it could be riddled with crevasses, it could be meter-high penitents that would stop most robots. But SPARROW is absolutely independent of the terrain; it has complete freedom to move through otherwise inhospitable terrain.”
The concept involves a lander that serves as a home base for a spherical robot. This ball, which resembles a cage and is about the size of a soccer ball, would contain instruments and engines.
Instead of relying on fuel, the SPARROW ball would use steam generated by melting ice. The low gravity on ocean worlds would allow the ball and its steam powered thrusters to bounce for miles.
The lander would collect and melt the ice and then load water into SPARROW. The robot ball’s motors could heat the water to create a steam boost.
Instruments onboard SPARROW could be used to collect samples that could be analyzed on land.
And more SPARROWs might be better than one for exploring these mysterious, far-off worlds.
The Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, or BRUIE, would behave similarly – just within an ocean on Enceladus or Europa and not on land.
A rover exploring an ocean world must navigate alone. The BRUIE prototype is about 1 meter long and has two wheels that allow it to roll upside down on ice. Images and data collected by the floating rover will allow scientists to study the ‘ice-water interface’.
“We found that life often lives at interfaces, both at the bottom of the sea and at the ice-water interface at the top. This area is difficult for most submersibles to survey because ocean currents could crash them or waste too much power-retaining position,” Andy Klesh, lead engineer for the concept, said in a statement.
“However, BRUIE uses buoyancy to remain anchored to the ice and is impervious to most currents. ice environment.”
JPL engineers have already put the rover through its paces in similar environments on Earth in the Arctic, Alaska and Antarctica.
“The ice shells covering these distant oceans serve as windows to the oceans below, and the chemistry of the ice could help support life in these oceans,” said Kevin Hand, JPL’s principal scientist for the BRUIE project. in a statement. “Here on Earth, the ice that covers our polar oceans plays a similar role, and our team is particularly interested in what happens where the water meets the ice.”
Swimming under the ice
A small but powerful approach is a concept where cellphone-sized swimming robots would be packed into a probe called Cryobot that could melt through the ice crusts on Europa and Enceladus. Once underwater, the fleet of tiny swimmers were free to explore the alien ocean.
The Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) concept has received $600,000 in the second phase of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which will allow for prototype testing.
“My idea is, where can we take miniaturized robotics and use them in interesting new ways to explore our solar system?” said Ethan Schaler, a robotics mechanical engineer at JPL, in a statement. “With a swarm of small swimming robots, we are able to explore a much larger volume of seawater and improve our measurements by having multiple robots in the same area collecting data.”
Each swimbot would be about 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) long, and about four dozen of them could fit in a 10-inch (25.4 centimeters) diameter portion of a cryobot. There would still be room in the probe for scientific instruments that rely on a hot core battery to melt the ice.
The cryobot’s home base would be a surface lander that would serve as a communications relay between the probe and Earth.
The swimming robots would each have their own propulsion system, computer and ultrasonic communications, and sensors capable of recording temperature, pressure, acidity and salinity. In the second phase, Schaler adds chemical sensors that could look for signs of life.
“What if, after all those years it took to get into an ocean, you came through the ice tray in the wrong place? What if there are signs of life over there, but not where you entered the ocean occurred?” said JPL SWIM team scientist Samuel Howell, who also works on the Europa Clipper. “By taking these swarms of robots with us, we could look ‘over there’ to explore much more of our surroundings than a single cryobot would allow.”
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