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These Robots Could Explore Ocean Worlds Throughout The Solar System

By: April Carson

The search for life elsewhere in the universe may be aided by our knowledge of other worlds throughout our solar system that have oceanic features. These worlds could provide important clues about the potential for life on ocean worlds beyond our own.

Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's Enceladus, according to scientists, may contain oceans beneath a thick, icy shell. The seas on Earth abound with life, but is it feasible on these cold moons?

The answer may be yes. In a new study, researchers have found that under the right conditions, life could exist in these frigid waters.

"Our work shows that there is a potential for life on ocean worlds like Europa and Enceladus," said co-author of the study, Dr. Simon Rittmann.

The search for life on other worlds could be expanded to include ocean-based environments. The goal of future exploration is to find out if ocean planets are habitable, and if so, what kind of life may exist there. NASA's Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency's JUNO will fly by Europa this decade, and a rover-size drone called NASA's Dragonfly will launch in 2027 to explore Titan in the 2030s.

According to the 2022 planetary decadal survey, Enceladus should be explored by a robot mission in the 2050s. The Orbilander mission would orbit and land on Enceladus in the 2050s, according to scientists who authored the 2022 decadal survey.

Technology that seems more like science fiction may be required to explore the difficult terrain as well as the oceans themselves. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working on a prototype of a robot that could one day walk across the ocean floor, drilling holes to collect samples of the rocks and sediments.

These missions will help us unlock the mysteries of these ocean worlds and understand what kind of life may exist there.

Ice hopping

Because of the low level of detail available about the icy surfaces of Europa and Enceladus, any exploration mission to these planets would have to explore hostile environments.

SPARROW, or the Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds, is a technology that can leap over any obstacles such as long ice blades known as penitentes.

"The terrain on Europa is almost certainly extremely complex," Gareth Meirion-Griffith, a JPL roboticist and project leader, stated. "It may be permeable, riddled with crevasses, and host meters-high penitentes that would stifle most robots. SPARROW, on the other hand, has absolute terrain agnosticism; it can freely explore an otherwise hostile environment."

A spherical robot will land on a comet and explore it from within an inflatable dome. This would be similar to the Chicxulub impact, where a large object collided with Earth's surface and its crater became our planet's largest tourist attraction. The idea includes a lander that serves as a base for the spherical robot. Instruments and thrusters would be included in this ball, which is about the size of a soccer ball.

The SPARROW ball, rather than relying on gasoline, would make use of steam generated by the melting of ice. On ocean planets with low gravity, the ball and its steam-powered thrusters could hop for miles thanks to the constraints of gravity. The ice would be melted and water loaded into SPARROW after which the ball would begin to propel them towards Mars.

The mission's instruments might be utilized to gather samples that would be examined on thelander. There are plenty of SPARROWs to discover these bewildering, distant planetary systems.

Underwater Roving

From 1997, space explorers have utilized rovers to explore Mars and reveal fascinating information about its habitability.

The Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, or BRUIE, would be operated in much the same way as the Surface Rover on Enceladus or Europa.

A rover exploring an ocean world would need to explore on its own. The BRUIE prototype is about 3 feet (1 meter) long and has two wheels that allow it to roll upside down over ice. Scientists will be able to study the "ice-water interface" by analyzing photos and data taken by the floating rover.

According to the designers, "we've discovered that life frequently exists at interfaces, both at the sea floor and at the ice-water interface at the top. Because ocean currents may cause them to smash or waste too much energy maintaining position, most submersibles have a hard time studying this region."

However, because it's buoyant, it can remain anchored against the ice and is resistant to most currents. It may also safely shut down, switching on only when required to take a measurement so that it can observe the under-ice environment for months at a time.

The Curiosity rover was tested in similar settings on Earth in the Arctic, Alaska, and Antarctica by JPL engineers.

"The ice shells that cover these distant seas act as a window into the seas below, and the chemical composition of the ice may aid in the formation of life there," Dr. Hand added. "Here on Earth, our polar seas' ice serves a similar purpose, and our team is particularly interested on what happens when water meets ice."

"The key question we're asking is whether the ice could support microbial life and, if so, how it might be distributed," said Dr. Steven Driese, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at Baylor University and a member of the Curiosity team. "We hope that our work will provide insights into not only the habitability of these environments but also how to search for signs of life."

Swimming under the ice

A small but powerful technique is one that would contain cell phone-size swimming robots within a probe called a cryobot, which could melt through the ice crust on Europa and Enceladus. The fleet of tiny swimmers might freely explore the alien ocean once they've gotten beneath the water's surface.

The Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers, or SWIM, concept has been granted $600,000 in funding as part of NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which will allow for research of prototype versions.

"My goal is to find out where we can take micro-robots and apply them in innovative ways to explore our solar system," said Ethan Schaler of JPL, according to a statement. "We are able to explore a greater volume of ocean water and improve measurements by having multiple robots collecting data in the same area with a swarm of tiny swimming robots."

The probe's diameter will be around 10 inches (25.4 centimeters). The craft would house hundreds of swimming bots, which would range in size from 5 inches to 12.7 cm and be housed within a cryobot with a diameter of 10 inches (25.4 centimeters). There will still be space for scientific instruments within the probe, which will rely on a hot nuclear battery to melt the ice.

The home base for the cryobot would be a lander on the ground, which would act as a link between the probe and Earth.

Swimming robots will have their own propulsion, computer, ultrasound communication, and sensors that can measure temperature, pressure, acidity and salinity. Chemical sensors would be added in the second phase to look for signs of life.

The third and final phase of the project would be to add a manipulator arm to the cryobot, which would allow it to collect samples of ice and water for analysis.

"What if, after all those years it took to get into an ocean, you come through the ice shell in the wrong place? What if there are signs of life over there but not where you entered the water? " asks JPL's Samuel Howell, who also works on the Europa Clipper. "We'd be able to look 'over there' with these swarms of robots to investigate much more of our environment than a single cryobot would allow," he continued.

If the concept is successful, it could pave the way for future missions to ocean worlds like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan.

"This work represents an important step in developing versatile robots that can one day enable scientists to explore some of the most extreme environments in our solar system," said Dara Sabahi, principal investigator for the project at JPL. "We are looking forward to continuing to test and refine this concept in order to ultimately make it ready for a potential future mission."

The team's findings are published in the journal Icarus.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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