Soft-robotic eel-like rover could help explore moons like Europa

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NASA has set its eyes on exploring the icy moons of our Solar System with intentions of looking for any possible signs of life underneath the thick ice cover on these space rocks and to do that the space agency has been busy inviting innovative ideas that go beyond the conventional.

As a part of its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme through which it intends to convert science fiction into science facts, the space agency has select 15 proposals for study under Phase I and one of the concepts is that of a Soft-robotic eel-like rover that can navigate the oceans on these icy moons.

One of the major hurdles for rover based exploration is the question of how to generate power in areas which would otherwise have no conventional means of power generation? Another question is what sort of rover should be deployed on moons / planets that have oceans?

To answer this dual dilemma, researchers have proposed a rover that would resemble an eel with a short antenna on its back that harvests power from locally changing magnetic fields. The goal is to enable amphibious exploration of ice-laden moons like Europa, which are believed to be have vast oceans beneath the ice cover.

Researchers at Cornell University have proposed a rover architecture that resembles a squid, with tentacle-like structures that serve both as electrodynamic tethers to harvest power from locally changing magnetic fields and as a means of bio-inspired propulsion.

The electrical energy scavenged from the environment powers all rover subsystems, including one that electrolyzes H20. Electrolysis produces a mixture of H2 and O2 gas, which is stored internally in the body and limbs of this rover.

Igniting this gas expands these internal chambers, causing shape change to propel the rover through fluid or perhaps along the surface of a planetary body. The Phase I effort constitutes advancement of this revolutionary rover concept from TRL 1 to TRL 2. The work will be conducted at Cornell University, led by PI Mason Peck and Co-I Robert Shepherd.

Researchers have proposed this architecture for Europa, but if the concept eventually succeeds, it will enable amphibious exploration of other moons of Jupiter and Saturn with liquid lakes or oceans.

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC)

NIAC is part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which innovates, develops, tests and flies hardware for use in NASA’s future missions. During the next 18 months, the directorate will make significant new investments to address several high-priority challenges in achieving safe and affordable deep space exploration.

Speaking on the latest NIAC selections, Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington said “The latest NIAC selections include a number of exciting concepts. We are working with American innovators to reimagine the future of aerospace and focus our investments on concepts to address challenges of current interests both in space and here on Earth.”