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NASA's ice-world robots can reach, launch, and melt in search of life

Why it matters to you

Liquid water is the starting place in our search for extraterrestrial life. These robots may help us find it.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are developing an array of robotic ice tools that may help uncover the frozen secrets of alien worlds. As part of the Ocean Worlds Mobility and Sensing study, each of these tools has been designed to collect samples from above or below the surface of icy moons such as Jupiter’s Europa.

“In the future, we want to answer the question of whether there is life on the moons of the outer planets — on Europa, Enceladus and Titan,” Tom Cwik, who leads JPL’s Space Technology Program, said in a news release. “We’re working with NASA headquarters to identify the specific systems we need to build now, so that in 10 or 15 years, they could be ready for a spacecraft.”

Liquid water offers one of our best bets for discovering extraterrestrial life. But, on an icy world, we’ll have to dig deep to access it.

Among the new tools are wheels that enable rovers to navigate icy terrain, a folding arm that can stretch 33 feet to grab samples at a distance, and a projectile launcher than can shoot a sampling probe up to 164 feet.

Engineers have also adapted methods used on Earth, such as “melt probes,” which melt through snow and ice to help scientists study the regions below. But, since melt probes tend to be inefficient, they would freeze up long before they dug all the way through Europa’s crust, which is somewhere between 6.2 and 12.4 miles deep. JPL engineering fellow Brian Wilcox devised a new tool that uses a vacuum-insulated capsule to retain its energy with a big chunk of heat-source plutonium. A rotating saw blade attached to the bottom is used to grind through the ice.

“We think there are glacier-like ice flows deep within Europa’s frozen crust,” Wilcox said. “Those flows churn up material from the ocean down below. As this probe tunnels into the crust, it could be sampling waters that may contain biosignatures, if any exist.”

The prototypes are now under review by NASA.