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

ice world robots europa
JPL-Caltech
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.

Emerging Tech

Healthy mice born from two genetic mothers using stem cells, gene editing

Healthy mice have been born from two genetics mothers and later went on to bear healthy offspring of their own, according to a recent paper published by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Emerging Tech

Keep your holiday gift list high tech and under budget with these gadgets

Modern technology doesn't always come cheap, but there plenty of premium devices that don't carry a premium price. Whether you're looking for a streaming device or a means of capturing photos from above, our list of the best tech under $50…
Home Theater

What’s new on Hulu and what’s leaving in November 2018

Our complete list of what's new on Hulu for November 2018, our personal favorites, and which titles will be removed will help you catch up on all the site has to offer -- and ensure you don't miss any titles heading into the streaming…
Home Theater

What’s new on Amazon Prime Video (November 2018)

Amazon Prime Video adds new titles each month that are available for free to all Prime members. Check out our list to find all the content hitting Amazon Prime Video in October and November 2018, from new original series to classic films.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in October, from 'The Witch’ to ‘Black Panther’

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, subdued humor, or anything in between.
Emerging Tech

From flying for fun to pro filmmaking, these are the best drones you can buy

In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. Here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now, no matter what kind of flying you plan to do.
Emerging Tech

Light-swallowing room promises Call of Duty fans the blackest of ops

What's it like to be in a room fully painted with the world's darkest material, Vantablack? The makers of one of the year's top video games teamed up with Vantablack scientists to find out.
Emerging Tech

Japanese scientists are chewing over an ‘electric gum’ that never loses flavor

Researchers at Japan's Meiji University may have found the secret to unlimited chewing gum -- and it just involves zapping your tongue with electricity. Here's what makes it all work.
Smart Home

Vector, the engaging Alexa-like robot, is ready to roam around your home

Anyone who has ever watched Short Circuit or WALL-E has surely dreamed about having a robot buddy come live with them. Finally, that dream is now a reality. It's name is Vector, and it's available now.
Emerging Tech

Ekster 3.0 lets you ask, ‘Alexa, where did I leave my wallet?’

Ekster's newest smart wallet is its best yet. It's slimmer than ever, boasts a neat card-dispensing mechanism, and will even let you know where it is, thanks to smart speaker integration.
Emerging Tech

Johns Hopkins’ lab-grown human retina could lead to big insights

Scientists from Johns Hopkins University have successfully grown human retina tissue from scratch in a lab. The work could help with the development of new therapeutics related to eye diseases.
Wearables

Skydio’s self-flying drone now has an Apple Watch app for flight prep

Skydio's clever R1 autonomous drone now has its own Apple Watch app, making flight preparations simpler than ever. The $2,000 flying machine is now also selling at its first retail outlet — Apple Stores in North America.
Emerging Tech

Are e-cigarettes safe? Here’s what the most recent science says

Ecigarettes are widely regarded and advertised as a healthier alternative to cigarettes for people who are trying to kick the smoking habit. How safe are these cigarette alternatives? We went deep into the recent scientific literature to…
Emerging Tech

Scientists created a condom that self-lubricates during sex. You’re welcome

Researchers from Boston University have invented a special coating for condoms which make them respond to bodily fluids by becoming more slippery. Here's how their new breakthrough works.