NASA unveils rover prototype designed to look for life on Europa

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This week, NASA unveiled a prototype for vehicles that may one day explore exotic worlds covered in ice and containing vast oceans underneath. The space exploration agency set the space-watching world abuzz earlier this year when they announced plans to visit Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter believed to have ideal conditions for life, sometime in the not-too-distant future. Since then, press reports have been rife with speculation about how they plan to do it.

On Monday, June 22, JPL scientist Andy Klesh suited up and dove into an aquarium at the California Science Center to demonstrate the prototype to eager onlookers. Currently going by the working title of BRUIE (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration), the rover currently resembles a space-age tiffin tin but will float, sport wheels, and drive on the underside of the ice.

Principal investigator Andy Kresh demonstrates the new rover from an aquarium tank in California.

Principal investigator Andy Kresh demonstrates the new rover from an aquarium tank in California. (NASA/JPL)

This phase of the rover is the result of work done by a JPL team that tested an earlier version in Alaska in 2012. Then, researchers operated the vehicle remotely, but as lead investigator on the BRUIE project Andy Klesh said in a NASA news release, Monday’s test was the first time the rover had been operated via satellite. NASA didn’t get too technical on the rover’s specifications, but they did have this to say about the rover’s current iteration:

The new version is longer, has a thicker body and is designed for ocean depths up to about 700 feet (200 meters). The central body contains computers, sensors and communication equipment. On either side of the central section is a “pod,” each with sensors, lights, a camera, batteries, instruments and two motors. The software for this rover is similar to what is being used for Mars Cube One, two communication-relay CubeSats that will launch with NASA’s InSight Mars lander in 2016.

How will NASA get underneath Europa’s ice?

The biggest challenge for the rover that may discover life on an icy world like Europa will be getting to the warm water oceans underneath the surface. The ice covering Europa is thought to be up to 20 miles thick in some places. Several projects currently under development aim to solve this problem using sophisticated laser and fiber optic technologies.

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An artist’s conception of chloride salts bubbling up through Europa’s thick icy surface. (NASA)

One of them, named VALKYRIE (Very deep Autonomous Laser-powered Kilowatt-class Yo-yoing Robotic Ice Explorer), drilled down 31 meters into the Matanuska glacier in Alaska in 2014, and Stone Aerospace, the firm currently developing the technology with funding from NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program, will head back out to the Matanuska this summer to put it through more tests.

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Europa, as seen from the Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. (NASA)

Europa is certainly a fascinating planet and where NASA is hoping humanity will discover its first extraterrestrial neighbors.

About Author

Adam Cameron spent his academic career learning about Iran, but ultimately decided that a job in the military-security-industrial complex just wasn't for him. He worked with Iranian refugees for a few years and has always dreamed of being a writer. He lives in North Hollywood, California in an 8-bit cocoon made out of an elaborate blanket fort covered in Adventure Time posters.

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