Millions of visitors make the trek to Yellowstone National Park each year, drawn in by the breathtaking views on offer. But a group of scientists is keen to look beyond the regular sights by building a deep-diving robot that's designed to investigate the ecosystem of microbes thriving beneath the surface of Lake Yellowstone.
Researching the waters within Yellowstone National Park has proved beneficial to science in the past. The study of Thermus aquaticus, a microbial species found in the Park backcountry, led to the development of a Nobel prize-winning DNA decoding method in the 1970s. Because these organisms live in warm temperatures, similar to those inside our body, scientists believe an understanding of their metabolic and physiological processes could help in the development of cancer-combatting drugs.
In spite of their potential scientific significance, only an estimated 1 percent of the microbes in Yellowstone have been identified. A relatively low-tech robot was used to capture footage of stunning rock formations and towers lurking beneath the surface in the 1980s, but since then exploration of Lake Yellowstone has stagnated.
In an attempt to change that, the GFOE is working with the Yellowstone Association, Yellowstone National Park, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, University of Minnesota and Montana State University to build a robot to explore the bottom of Lake Yellowstone.
Designed to record high-definition video and collect delicate biological samples, the robot will measure up at 3 x 3 x 4.5 ft (0.91 x 0.91 x 1.37 m) and weigh 600 lb (272 kg), with a scientific payload of 120 lb (54 kg). The team is hoping to have the robot depth rated to 4,920 ft (1,500 m) – more than adequate for exploring the deepest points of Lake Yellowstone, which are only 394 ft (120 m) below the surface.
High definition cameras attached to the outside of the robot will send clear images of the lake floor up to the team, and scientists can collect samples using a 5-function electric arm, temperature sensor, water sampler and equipment designed to analyze the composition of hydrothermal fluids.
The Yellowstone Robot will also be fitted with an acoustic navigation system, 130-color sonar and 6 thrusters.
As you might imagine, building to these specifications isn't cheap. GFOE estimates the total cost to be around US$200,000. The $45,000 thruster system is the most expensive component on the robot, followed by the $40,000 robotic arm and $30,000 HD camera. The team estimates sensors will cost $25,000, while navigation equipment is worth another $20,000.
A buoyancy foam pack and tether system (priced at $15,000 each) are crucial to ensuring the robot doesn't become an expensive piece of scenery on the lake floor, while the $10,000 dedicated to structural components is the smallest investment of the project.
The Yellowstone Robot is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, where it has achieved over $34,000 of its $100,000 goal with 24 days remaining. GFOE says a private donor is matching every dollar earned through crowdfunding, meaning the team's $100,000 online goal will essentially fund the project. Pledges range from $5 to $10,000.
As well as exploring Yellowstone Lake, the team hopes to use its robot to explore other large lakes over its lifetime.
A video explaining the project is below.