A new space rover prototype is being developed for underwater exploration
in space, but in the meantime it is helping scientists gain a better
understanding of Earth's seas. One of the most enticing targets for future
space exploration in our own cosmic backyard is the Jovian moon Europa.
It’s the only object in the solar system where we know there is a large volume
of liquid water, though on Europa it’s usually locked in a subsurface ocean
deep below the icy crust. It may even harbor extraterrestrial life. NASA is
already thinking about how it might explore this frozen sea, and researchers
have just successfully tested the first untethered under-ice
rover. Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have finally built a
robot that will be able to chart the icy waters found in outer space — like on
Jupiter’s moon Europa — going where no other space robot has gone before. The
rover reached the Alaskan water relatively easily by drilling through a single
foot of ice. Reaching the subsurface ocean of Europa will prove much more
difficult, being that experts estimate the layer of ice on that world to be
twenty-four miles thick.
The BRUIE prototype. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE) is operated through satellite link and designed to cling onto the underside of ice with metal tires, transmitting measurements back to scientists and assessing whether the waters host other life-forms. Scientists have already built rovers that can withstand the dry terrain of the Earth’s moon and Mars, but this is the first such machine built to explore extraterrestrial aquatic bodies.
BRUIE is currently being tested in frozen Alaska lakes, but engineers hope that the robot will one day be flown to Europa. NASA maintains that although the rover is prototyping exploration on other celestial bodies, the test runs in Alaska are also allowing scientists to gain a better understanding of Earth’s frozen waters — at present, 95% of Earth’s oceans remain unchartered. Experts believe Europa has two-to-three times the volume of all the liquid water on Earth. Because of its extensive water, Hand and other astrobiologists believe that Europa “provides an incredibly compelling place to go to search for a second, independent origin of life and it’s a place where we might find lifeforms that are alive now, today.”