At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, high up in the hills around Los Angeles, a new type of robot has been created. Specifically, one fit for delving through ice-encrusted oceans in frozen space worlds.
BRUIE (Buoyant Rover for Under-ICE Exploration) looks like a regular lunar rover, with two wheels on a rectangular body. But it’s capable of living under layers of ice more than 10 kilometres thick and relaying pictures and important bits of data.
NASA says it’s being tested in the harsh waters of Antarctica, to see how the machinery reacts during attempts to navigate under the ice for months on end.
In its coverage of the story, Argentinian paper La Nacion writes of a belief in the scientific community that there are moons “throughout the solar system” covered by deep oceans and frozen surfaces. Scientists involved in the BRUIE project — particularly Kevin Hand, who is leading the initiative — believe that it’s in these oceans that we’re most likely to find life.
Photo of BRUIE. By NASA
“The ice sheets that cover these distant oceans serve as a window to the ocean floor, and ice chemistry could help feed life within those oceans,” Hand said, as quoted in La Nacion. “Here on Earth, the ice that covers our polar oceans meets a similar function, and our team is particularly interested in what is happening where the water meets the ice.”
The rover carries bits of tech to measure life, including water pressure, temperature, salinity and oxygen levels. But there’s always the chance that the ‘life’ we know how to look for may not appear, and there may instead be traces of other, alien microbe forms.
Hand’s colleague, lead engineer Andy Klesh, added: “We have discovered that life often lives at the interfaces, both at the bottom of the sea and at the interface of icy water at the top. Most submersibles have difficulty investigating this area, since ocean currents can do crashing or wasting a lot of energy to maintain the position.
“BRUIE, however, uses buoyancy to remain anchored against ice and is impervious to most currents. In addition, it can be turned off safely, turning on only when you need to take a measurement, so you can spend months observing the medium atmosphere under the ice “.
The overall aim? To get the robot ready for an upcoming trip in 2025, when NASA will launch an expedition to Europe, the ice-encrusted moon circling Jupiter.