(ORDO NEWS) — One day, a flock of cell phone-sized robots will scour the waters under the thick ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, looking for traces of extraterrestrial life.
Housed inside an ice-melting probe, these tiny robots will descend through the icy crust to a subsurface ocean of liquid water and be released into the water, where they can travel considerable distances from the parent probe.
That’s how Ethan Schaler, a robotics engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, imagines the concept of new missions to the icy moons of giant planets.
Schaller and his team recently received a $600,000 grant from NASA to implement Phase II of the Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) concept under the space agency’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. This funding will enable the team to build and test 3D printed robot prototypes over the next two years.
The key features of the mini-robots offered by Shaler will be their small size and a large number on board one cryobot (a parent probe capable of melting ice using a built-in battery and an electric heat source and thus going deep into the ice crust).
As a result, it will be possible to significantly increase the scope of the collection of scientific data and thereby increase the likelihood of detecting traces of life.
The SWIM mini-robot concept, which has never been used on any NASA mission before, involves tiny wedge-shaped “submarines” about 12 centimeters in size and 60-75 cubic centimeters each.
Approximately five dozen of these robots will fit inside a 10-centimeter cryobot compartment, which has an internal diameter of about 25 centimeters, while taking up only 15 percent of the maximum onboard payload.
Each probe will be equipped with temperature, salinity, acidity and water pressure sensors. Joint measurements with a group of coordinated floating mini-robots will reduce the chance of measurement error, as well as gain insight into the gradient of measured values, such as water temperature or salinity – since, for example.
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