NASA Creating Tiny, Swimming Robots to Find Alien Life
NASA is funding a project to develop a swarm of swimming ‘cellphone-size robots,’ envisioned to swim through miles-thick icy water on moons in the solar system to detect signs of life.
The funding has been awarded to robotics engineer Ethan Schaler at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who developed the sensing with independent micro-swimmers (SWIM) concept. The latest investment is expected to allow the team to develop and test 3D-printed prototypes of the bots over the next two years.
Sent inside an ice-melting probe, the bots could be used to explore places inaccessible to humans or larger robots, such as Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Early-stage designs show the microbots as measuring five inches long and three to five cubic inches in volume and would come kitted with their own propulsion system, onboard computer and ultrasound communications system, along with simple sensors for temperature, salinity, acidity and pressure.
Chemical sensors to monitor for biomarkers or signs of life would be part of the second phase study using the latest funding.
The bots would be connected to the surface via a communications tether, allowing a team on Earth to remain in contact with the swimmers, though this would also somewhat limit the exploratory range of the bots. As well as detecting new life, the bots could discern potential habitability by measuring temperature and salinity of the waters they swim through.
By deploying these bots as a group, NASA could ensure data is as accurate by comparing readings between devices, which the agency says “reduces risk while enhancing science”.
NASA is currently preparing for its Europa Clipper mission, with a planned launch of 2024. Developing cryobots to investigate ocean worlds on moons such as Europa is a central part of NASA’s long term plan, and various concepts are under development in NASA’s Scientific Exploration Subsurface Access Mechanism for Europa (SESAME) program.