NASA to begin testing underwater rover in Antarctica

NASA is testing its new underwater rover in Antarctica
Image: NASA / JPL

Planetary scientists believe that some of the best places to look for extraterrestrial life are the subsurface oceans that exist underneath the icy crusts of moons in the outer solar system. These include Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s satellite Enceladus. Getting a spacecraft across the solar system to these moons is one thing. It’s a different beast to actually explore underneath the miles-deep icy crusts of these water worlds. Nonetheless, NASA is on it.

The agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is sending its Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE) to Antarctica, Futurism reports. JPL previously tested BRUIE in the Arctic, but the Antarctic waters provide the best analog to icy moon subsurface oceans. So, for the next month, BRUIE will prove its mettle in the icy Antarctic waters at Australia’s Casey research station to simulate a far-flung moon.

“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,” BRUIE project lead Kevin Hand said in a statement. “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.”

Ice-Water Interface

Where the water meets the ice, called the ice-water interface, can prove dangerous due to the unpredictable ways that the two interact. BRUIE is designed to excel there. The rover is three-feet long and sports two wheels. It can roll upside down underneath the ice using buoyancy to adhere to it. The robot is also equipped with imaging devices so that it can visually survey the ice-water interface.

BRUIE’s adeptness in the area is good because that’s where scientists think the action is. “We’ve found that life often lives at interfaces, both the sea bottom and the ice-water interface at the top,” lead engineer Andy Klesh said. “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.”

“BRUIE, however, uses buoyancy to remain anchored against the ice and is impervious to most currents” he continued. “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.”

Parameters Pertaining to Life

Along with its two live, high-definition cameras, BRUIE will take measurements with a suite of instruments. These will test for parameters pertaining to life such as dissolved oxygen, pressure, temperature, and water salinity. If all goes well in the first few rounds of endurance testing, the team will attach the scientific instruments.

Related: NASA’s Dragonfly quadcopter set to fly the skies of Saturn’s moon Titan

The first rounds of testing will take place in lakes on the Antarctic mainland. Next, the team will take it to the sea near Casey station. They will drill holes in the ice in order to submerge BRUIE. The rover might spot its first lifeforms fairly quickly. According to the press release, curious penguins and seals often come and investigate when science teams drill through the ice.

So, when might BRUIE actually encounter extraterrestrial life? There’s a lot of work to do before the robot blasts off to explore icy moons. First, the JPL team must make sure that the rover can survive underwater for months at a time. It will need to navigate untethered and eventually head deeper into the ocean.