NASA builds swarm of swimming robots to search for life in space

NASA robot

The early SWIM concept envisions wedge-shaped robots, each about 12 centimeters long (Photo: NASA)

NASA continues to pursue its mission to search for life in space and this time it is betting on finding it in the oceans of other planets.

The space agency is building a swarm of “mobile phone-sized robots” that can fly through the water beneath the miles-thick icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, looking for signs of alien life.

The tiny robots will be packaged in a narrow ice-melt probe that would tunnel through the frozen crust and release them underwater, swimming far from their parent vessel to observe these new worlds.

The man behind this innovative idea is Ethan Schaler, a robotics mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

His recent concept called Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) was recently awarded $600,000 in Phase II financing from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

This illustration shows NASA’s cryobot concept PRIME deploying tiny wedge-shaped robots in the ocean miles below a lander on the frozen surface of an ocean world (Image: Nasa)

The latest funding follows its $125,000 price tag in 2021 to study feasibility and design options. Now Schaler and his team will spend the next two years creating and testing 3D-printed prototypes.

Schaler’s mini-swimmers are said to be much smaller than other concepts for planetary ocean exploration robots, allowing many to be compactly loaded into an ice probe. The idea has a higher chance of detecting evidence of life while assessing potential habitability on a distant ocean-bearing planet.

“With a swarm of small swimming robots, we can explore a much larger volume of ocean water and improve our measurements by having multiple robots collect data in the same area,” says Schaler.

The early-stage SWIM concept envisions wedge-shaped robots, each about 12 centimeters long and about 60 to 75 cubic centimeters in volume. The robots would be a first for a NASA mission, with about four dozen of them fitting easily into a 10-centimeter section of a cryobot, taking up only about 15% of the scientific payload volume.

This leaves plenty of room for more powerful but less mobile scientific instruments that can collect data during the long journey through the ice and provide stationary measurements in the ocean.

The robots could explore the water beneath the miles of icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa (Photo: Nasa)

The little robots will be at NASA Europe Clipper mission in 2024 that will collect detailed science from Jupiter’s moon by 2030.

‘What if, after all the years it took to get into an ocean, you get through the ice shell in the wrong place? What if there are signs of life there, but not where you entered the ocean?’ said SWIM team scientist Samuel Howell, who also works on the Europa Clipper mission.

“By bringing these swarms of robots with us, we could look ‘there’ to explore much more of our environment than a single cryobot would allow,”

Just as NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter supports the agency’s Perseverance rover on the Red Planet, SWIM will support the cryobots.

In addition, the SWIM robots could converge in a behavior inspired by fish or birds, reducing errors in data due to their overlapping measurements.

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