Nasa continues to pursue its mission of looking for life in outer space and this time it’s betting on finding it in the oceans of other planets.
The space agency is building a swarm of ‘cellphone-size robots’ that could whisk through the water beneath the miles-thick icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, looking for signs of alien life.
The tiny robots will be packed inside a narrow ice-melting probe that would tunnel through the frozen crust and release them underwater, swimming far from their mothercraft to observe these new worlds.
The man behind this innovative idea is Ethan Schaler, a robotics mechanical engineer at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
His recent concept called Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) was recently awarded $600,000 in Phase II funding from Nasa’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
The latest funding follows his 2021 award of $125,000 to study feasibility and design options. Now, Schaler and his team will make and test 3D-printed prototypes over the next two years.
Schaler’s mini-swimmers would be much smaller than other concepts for planetary ocean exploration robots, allowing many to be loaded compactly into an ice probe. The idea has an increased likelihood of detecting evidence of life while assessing potential habitability on a distant ocean-bearing planet.
‘With a swarm of small swimming robots, we are able to explore a much larger volume of ocean water and improve our measurements by having multiple robots collecting data in the same area,’ said Schaler.
The early-stage SWIM concept envisions wedge-shaped robots, each about 12 centimetres long and about 60 to 75 cubic centimetres in volume. The robots would be a first for a Nasa mission, with about four dozen of them easily fitting in a 10-centimetres-long section of a cryobot and taking up just about 15% of the science payload volume.
This leaves plenty of room for more powerful but less mobile science instruments that could gather data during the long journey through the ice and provide stationary measurements in the ocean.
The tiny robots will be on the Nasa Europa Clipper mission in 2024 that’s set to gather detailed science from Jupiter’s moon in 2030.
‘What if, after all those years it took to get into an ocean, you come through the ice shell in the wrong place? What if there’s signs of life over there but not where you entered the ocean?’ said SWIM team scientist Samuel Howell, who also works on the Europa Clipper mission.
‘By bringing these swarms of robots with us, we’d be able to look “over there” to explore much more of our environment than a single cryobot would allow,’
Just like Nasa’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter supports the agency’s Perseverance rover on the Red Planet, SWIM will support the cryobots.
Additionally, the SWIM robots could ‘flock’ together in a behaviour inspired by fish or birds, thereby reducing errors in data through their overlapping measurements.