Advances in robots needed to explore icy moons

Advances in robots needed to explore icy moons
Credit: NASA

In December 2013, researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope announced they had found evidence of a water plume emanating from Europa's surface.

The finding excited astrobiologists because this moon of Jupiter is widely known to have ice covering its surface. If water is escaping from the ice, that implies that there could be a way for microbial life beneath to receive energy.

The plume has not been spotted since, and scientists are still trying to figure out why this is the case. In the meantime, the possibility of plumes more generally presents an intriguing question about how best to explore them. After all, even if plumes are never spotted near Europa again, they are known to be regular occurrences on Saturn's moon, Enceladus.

"The idea is that we can develop a sort of Swiss army knife, or instruments and exploration strategies for the , and the plumes of the icy moons," said Nathalie Cabrol, a research scientist at SETI Institute, who recently led a presentation called "Europa and beyond: Adaptive robotic exploration of planetary plumes."

The abstract was submitted in February at a workshop entitled, "Workshop on the Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume," at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California and co-hosted by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute.

Communications delays

NASA is experienced at sending spacecraft to planets far from Earth. For example, the Cassini mission, a joint project with the European Space Agency, is currently imaging Saturn and its moons. The mission has been at Saturn since 2004 and is expected to work there until 2017.

Advances in robots needed to explore icy moons
Cassini imaging scientists used views like this one to help them identify the source locations for individual jets spurting ice particles, water vapor and trace organic compounds from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Traditionally, however, spacecraft in the Outer Solar System are unable to react to events in real time. Because they are so far away from Earth, the radio signal takes hours to reach the spacecraft and hours more to get home. This means the spacecraft do their work through long pre-programmed computer routines that are directed by ground teams on Earth.

This is even an issue on Mars, which is relatively close to our planet, with at most a 40-minute lag time between sending receiving signals, Cabrol points out.

"It's not practical to deal with it," she said. "The rover is spending a lot of time sitting on the surface doing nothing, which is an unproductive way of using mission time."

The solution is to use more intelligent robots that can adapt to the environment around them, she said. This has already been tested out in challenging climates here on Earth, such as in the Andes. These robots accumulate enough data to learn what is normal and what is not normal in an environment. Also, they have programs on board to let them know what are observational priorities of the mission.

"They stay alert to what is happening around them, and they have templates on how to operate if something important is happening," Cabrol said.

Networked intelligence

Advances in robots needed to explore icy moons
The JUpiter ICy moons Explorer mission, JUICE (Artist impression ) Image credit: ESA/AOES

Cabrol has spent the past couple of decades working on adaptive robots in several harsh environments, ranging from the Atacama Desert in Chile to mountainous areas.

She recalled a project she is working on that involves a robotic lake explorer in Chile, which is a testbed for technologies to use on the moon Titan. The saturnian moon is considered very swampy and could contain molecules that are a precursor to life.

The robot was programmed to alert the science team if events important to the mission science objectives were occurring between planned activities. Because the test took place on Earth, the alert was sent by the robot via email. The message contained a panorama as well as physicochemical data from the air and water column. One day, as a storm occurred over the lake, Cabrol received an e-mail alert from the robot.

"I opened the window and there was a gigapan panorama showing the Lake Lander buried in the snow," she said with a laugh. "You were right. Good job."

To do serious exploration of a planet or moon, she added, it is a good idea to send a network of robots that would have distributed intelligence They could communicate with each other from the surface and from orbit to gather a complete picture of the area and make missions substantially more productive.

Explore further

Europa—attempt no landing here, but a fly-by is fine!

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User comments

Jul 03, 2015
Let me get this right(something here doesn't make sense):

On one side Google(and others) are on the verge of releasing self-driving cars, here on earth, in an environment way more complex, that if you include unpredictable pedestrian and other drivers and extremely crowded traffic, and comply with a minimum speed limit in order not to avoid congestion. To do this these cars must be able to make decision in a fraction of a second.

And on the other side all these roves they send can barely drive a few meters on their own and that in environment which at best has few challenges by difference? And not even able to reach a top speed of more than a few meters a day?

Jul 03, 2015
To do this these cars must be able to make decision in a fraction of a second.

On even roads.
And on the other side all these roves they send can barely drive a few meters

On terrain of unknown craggyness and completely unknown structural stability

And not even able to reach a top speed of more than a few meters a day?

This has always baffled me - why would anyone want to zip accross the surface of a place they want to explore. What exactly would be the point of speed?

Jul 03, 2015

On even roads.
On terrain of unknown craggyness and completely unknown structural stability

Roads, even ? .. not always - there are potholes and there could be oil spills and any number of unknowns as I said, a pedestrian jumping in to cross or others driver cutting in front on you - and I presume they can handle that and they can do that at an average speed of 50mph at least.

This has always baffled me - why would anyone want to zip accross the surface of a place they want to explore. What exactly would be the point of speed?

To explore and map the environment faster - with a decent navigation speed and decent on on board storage one rover could cover various point of interest spotted from orbit - environment there is not that diverse for every meter in any given area.
Witch current rovers, at this peace it will take hundreds of years and many other rovers to be sent to investigate only small areas at the time.

Jul 03, 2015
To explore and map the environment faster

Again: what's the rush?
If you want to get a complete map don't use rovers. Use satellites.There's enough places of interest within the area a slow moving rover can cover (abundantly so).

A google car (costing a few 10k dollars) can call for roadside assitance if anything goes wrong. A rover (costing several hundred million to get it to another planet) cannot.
So you'd risk that just to be at some rock 5 minutes earlier than otherwise? Makes no sense whatsoever.

Let scientists do science and let racecar drivers drive racecars. The two don't mix.

Jul 04, 2015
You know that even going just those few meters a day has already torn the Curiosity rover's wheels to hell, right? Even the worst roads that Google has their cars on are still paved roads with guaranteed solid earth underneath of them.

Think Google's cars function well at -120C?

Finally, you say they are "on the verge" of releasing the cars, but the reality is they are at least a decade away, even discounting regulatory hurdles. Then count the time to replicate everything with parts that will function in the extreme climates required, and integrate those parts into a mission plan.

Jul 05, 2015
I would have to think that become the plume has not been since its first discovery is that the plumes are similar to volcanic eruptions on Earth. Since there is a plume present much like a volcanic eruption this would mean that the core of Europa is active enough to cause tectonic plate movement. Plate movement that returns a portion of the planet to the core where it increases the mass of the core causing pressure. This pressure then releases itself through the weakest cracks in the planets many layers until the liquid finds its way to the surface. This theory to me would suggest that Europa is comprised of rocky and liquid layers with a more rocky inner layering. Otherwise the liquid would rushed into the core by now and caused a pressure cooker effect to take place essentially blowing the planet apart. With this theory I also suggest that there would be pockets of warm water that would be just the right temperatures to sustain life just like deeps of Earths oceans.

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