NASA's JPL, or Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a wondrous thing. It's the gnarly department that invents the robotic gadgets and spacecraft that will help the agency's scientists gather the information and data from far-off places. And here's its newest little bot-on-tracks, a satellite link-controlled device that is an early precursor of something that may be used to get around on a future mission to the planet Europa. And its best trick? This little Meccano-esque machine can travel on the underside of frozen ice, taking its directions remotely.
The team flew up to Barrow, Alaska, in order to test the device, beneath the ice. They had to cut out a 14-inch deep chunk in order to get the rover under the surface. As Kevin Hand, one of the astrobiologists involved, explained: "These lakes in Alaska that freeze over every year and freeze down, they're just one example of life in an extreme environment that can help guide us in assessing whether a world like Europa could harbor life." Several years ago, NASA developed a diving robot called ENDURANCE with the hopes of dropping it into one of Europa's icy lakes. The planet is thought to have more water on than Earth, and last year the Hubble telescope captured what scientists thought were jets of water shooting up from beneath the planet's surface.
In an interview over the weekend, chief scientist Ellen Stofan explained in more detail about NASA's plans for Europa. "We know there is an ocean under that icy crust," she told The Observer. "There are plumes of water coming out of the cracks in the south polar region. There's orange gunk all over the surface — what the heck is that stuff? Huge questions about Europa — it is clearly our next step."
Although the general public seems to be most interested in whether NASA will answer the question posed by David Bowie 43 years ago, there are plans for other planets. Laurie Matthies, the JPL's chief research scientist, suggested last week that any exploration of Titan, Saturn's biggest moon, will probably be undertaken by a drone that will buzz from a larger spacecraft to the moon to collect samples before returning to the mothership.
Orange gunk. It's the future, you know.