NASA shows off under-ice rover prototype designed for Europa, other icy planets

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NASA has revealed a prototype of its under-ice rover which could one day be used on missions to Europa and other icy planets that may harbour liquid oceans underneath the ice sheets.

The under-ice rover was on display at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. According to Andy Klesh, principal investigator for the rover at JPL the buoyant rover can be used here on Earth to study the Arctic and Antarctic. Researchers also envision that a technology like this could one day explore icy bodies in the solar system, and even look for signs of habitability and life.

“A lot of what we do in deep space is applicable to the ocean,” Klesh said. “This is an early prototype for vehicles that could one day go to Europa and other planetary bodies with a liquid ocean covered by ice. It’s ideal for traveling under the ice shelf of an icy world.”

Provisionally called the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE), this rover would normally float and have wheels. Its wheels would roll along on the underside of ice, as if the ice were the ground. Operating underwater, the rover would take images and collect other data to help scientists understand the important interface between ice and water.

“Our work aims to build a bridge between exploring extreme environments in our own ocean and the exploration of distant, potentially habitable oceans elsewhere in the solar system,” said Kevin Hand, co-investigator for the rover and planetary scientist at JPL. Dan Berisford, John Leichty and Josh Schoolcraft at JPL are also co-investigators on the project.

The first iteration of this rover was a two-wheeled vehicle that the team took to Barrow, Alaska, in 2012. After the team sawed a hole in the ice, they placed the rover underwater, totally untethered. Back at JPL, engineers drove the rover remotely.

“This was the first time an under-ice vehicle had been operated via satellite,” Klesh said.

The new version is longer, has a thicker body and is designed for ocean depths up to about 700 feet (200 meters). The central body contains computers, sensors and communication equipment. On either side of the central section is a “pod,” each with sensors, lights, a camera, batteries, instruments and two motors. The software for this rover is similar to what is being used for Mars Cube One, two communication-relay CubeSats that will launch with NASA’s InSight Mars lander in 2016.

Researchers are currently working to increase the rover’s autonomy and beef up its hazard avoidance, with an eye toward eventually letting the rover survey a frozen lake on its own.

At the science center, the rover gathered data about its surroundings, including taking pictures of nearby fish and the people on the other side of the glass. The rover did not have its wheels, but the sections of its body rotated once every hour, giving visitors a show as it twisted around.

“We’re a long way off from exploring Europa’s ocean, but the young children visiting the California Science Center and seeing our robot could be the ones building the vehicles that go there,” Hand said.