Icy moon explorer heads for tests in Antarctica
A wheeled robot designed to roll along on the underside of the ice cap is to be tested in the Antarctic. Being developed by engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE) robot is part of a project to develop technology for studying the icy moons of the outer solar system.
One of the more exciting possibilities for future space missions is the strong evidence that many of the icy moons of the planets of the outer solar system, like Enceladus or Europa, may possess global oceans 6 to 12 miles (9.6 to 19 km) beneath the ice crust that might harbor some form of primitive life.
One especially promising area of study would be the interface between the ice shells and the buried oceans, where the chemistry of the ice might help support living organisms in the way it does in Earth's polar oceans.
"We've found that life often lives at interfaces, both the sea bottom and the ice-water interface at the top. Most submersibles have a challenging time investigating this area, as ocean currents might cause them to crash, or they would waste too much power maintaining position," says lead engineer Andy Klesh. "BRUIE, however, uses buoyancy to remain anchored against the ice and is impervious to most currents. In addition, it can safely power down, turning on only when it needs to take a measurement so that it can spend months observing the under-ice environment."
Looking like a 3-ft-long (0.9-m) bobbin, BRUIE houses electronics, cameras, and instruments in its shaft and has two motorized end-wheels with sharp teeth for gripping the underside of the slippery ice. For the first tests, which will begin in December at Australia's Casey research station, the robotic explorer will be lowered on a tether through a hole in the ice. There it will then start its wanderings as its instruments and two live, high-definition cameras send back data on dissolved oxygen, water salinity, pressure, and temperature.
If the initial tests are successful, BRUIE will be taken off its tether after a few months and allowed to operate at greater depths.