We have discovered subsurface oceans beneath the miles-thick icy surface of Europa (Jupiter’s icy moon) and Enceladus (Saturn’s moon). For years, scientists have developed the idea of using robotic explorers to navigate subsurface oceans to advance our search for the existence of life beyond Earth. Scientists have revealed that the presence of subsurface water on these icy moons should be the best place to look towards while searching for life beyond Earth.
However, we cannot reach the subsurface water because they lie beneath miles of thick solid ice. Hence, its thick solid ice is preventing space agencies from advancing the search for life in the subsurface salty water. This is where Crybots will come to our rescue. Crybots probes were meant to dig or melt the thick icy crust of the solar system moons to access the water beneath them.
The idea has been under investigation for the past decade. Recently, NASA awarded $600,000 as part of the Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) in phase II funding to study new ways of advancing our search for alien life in the oceans of the icy moons. The American space agency hopes that funding this project will help scientists to send swarms of small swimming robots into the oceans of Europa and Enceladus. However, scientists have to put extra effort to ensure that the project succeeds and meets its mission requirement before launch.
How Scientists Plan to Send swimming Robots to Alien oceans
The idea of sending tiny micro-robots the size of s cell phone was coined by Ethan Schaler, who is a microrobotics expert, and his colleagues working at JPL and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The scientists plan to accomplish this goal through a means identified as Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM). Schaler is so fascinated with the idea that he believes it will revolutionize the way we advance the search for extraterrestrial lifeforms outside Earth.
Scientists plan to build robots with the ability to melt or drill through several miles of thick ice and drop off scientific explorers to see what lies in the subsurface sea. Schaler believes that we need to put swimming robots in the subsurface oceans instead of just any scientific instrument. More sophisticated swimming robots will have the potential of reaching every path of the alien seas and making more interesting discoveries for humanity.
To ensure we get the best out of alien seas exploration in the future, Schaler and his team came up with many concepts. In an interview with Astronomy.com, Schaler made this bold statement. “We looked at slightly larger tethered robots,” he says. “We also looked at passive floating sensor pods that you could deploy into the currents. We looked at a tethered chain of sensor nodes basically a long kite with steerable elements to give you some mobility to steer in the downstream current. What we finally settled on were fully untethered, cell-phone-sized swimming robots.”
Schaler concluded on the essence of deploying untethered robots to spread out across the subsurface water and advance the search for alien lifeforms. The scientists plan to include about 48 swimming robots into a single cylindrical robot. The essence of packing the explorers inside a cryobot is to ensure that they all fit inside an accommodating space while reaching the icy moons’ surfaces.
Each of these 48 microswimmers will have the potential of swimming up to 1.5 to 3 hours to determine the chemical gradients, temperature, signs of active life, and other interesting facts. Although scientists are still finding some challenges in accomplishing this futuristic goal, we are certain about exploring icy moons’ subsurface oceanic worlds in the near future.
The crybots may experience difficulty melting or digging the icy crust of Europa and Enceladus. However, Schaler and his team of experts will continue to advance their experiments until they figure out how to simplify the mission to get more realistic results during the launch.
“SWIM would also allow data to be gathered away from the cryobot’s blazing-hot nuclear battery, which the probe would rely on to melt a downward path through the ice,” Schaler said. “Once in the ocean, that heat from the battery would create a thermal bubble, slowly melting the ice above and potentially causing reactions that could change the water’s chemistry.”
Scientist Samuel Howell of JPL, who works on Europa Clipper and also a SWIM team member expressed his opinion in a statement.
“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 are signs of life over there but not where you entered the ocean?” he said. “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.”
How the Swimming Robots will Enter the Subsurface Ocean
The scientists plan to reduce every possible risk that could pose a threat to the success of this mission. Hence, the cryobot will be designed to stay connected with a communication attached to the surface-based lander. The lander on its own will create a point of contact and communicate with the mission controllers on Earth. The tethered approach and large propulsion system will prevent the cryobot from going beyond the point where the icy surface touches the oceans.
Scientists plan to send the SWIM robots to navigate the oceans following a behavior inspired by fish or birds. Through this approach, scientists want to significantly reduce errors using their overlapping measurements. This will significantly improve the success of the mission. Each swimming robot will be designed to have its own propulsion system, ultrasound communications system, and onboard computers. These technologies will surely advance the search for extraterrestrial lifeforms.
The idea of exploring subsurface alien seas has remained a science fiction for years. However, scientists are taking a different approach to unveil new mysteries for mankind. With the idea of sending microswimmers to advance our search for extraterrestrial lifeforms under the sea, scientists are certain that we will achieve greater results from this mission. What do you think about this futuristic approach of sending swimming robots to Solar system icy moons?