The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the USA recently displayed a new underwater robot for a mission that could one day search for life in ocean worlds beyond Earth.
The robot, known as Buyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE), is being developed for underwater exploration in extra-terrestrial, icy waters by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The underwater rover is NASA’s hope for exploring distant ocean worlds, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
As these moons are believed to have liquid water oceans beneath thick crusts of ice, they may be the most promising locations in our solar system to search for evidence of extra-terrestrial life.
BRUIE will be rolling into Antarctica this month to perform a gymnastic feat — driving upside down under sea ice.
“The ice shells covering these distant oceans serve as a window into the oceans below, and the chemistry of the ice could help feed life within those oceans. Here on Earth, the ice covering our polar oceans serves a similar role, and our team is particularly interested in what is happening where the water meets the ice,” said Kevin Hand, lead scientist on the BRUIE project, said in a statement.
BRUIE can dive deep beneath sea ice to explore ocean depths, which are normally hidden from view. It will measure various parameters, like dissolved oxygen, water salinity, pressure and temperature, that are important for the presence of life.
The Antarctic waters are the closest Earth analog to the seas of an icy moon, which makes them an ideal testing ground for the BRUIE technology.
Three feet (1 meter) long and equipped with two wheels to roll along beneath the ice, the buoyant rover can take images and collect data from the region where water and ice meet, what scientists call the “ice-water interface.”
“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,” said 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, and can spend months observing the under-ice environment,” Klesh said.
While the team has previously tested BRUIE in Alaska and the Arctic, this is the rover’s first trial in Antarctica. The team will continue to work on BRUIE until it can survive under the ice for months at a time, remotely navigate without a tether and explore the ocean at greater depths.
NASA is already constructing the Europa Clipper orbiter, scheduled for launch in 2025 to study Jupiter’s moon Europa, laying the groundwork for a future mission that could search for life beneath the ice.