“Biomimetic Robots In Space”! As Evan Ackerman remarked, sometimes the headlines write themselves (his own headline is “NASA Funds Electricity-Harvesting Robotic Space Eel With Explosive Jet Thrusters and Electroluminescent Skin”)
File this under, “Because: Awesome”.
This is a real project, looking at radical (not to mention awesome) ideas for exploring Europa.
As I have noted earlier, Europa is an interesting place to send a robot rover. An icy surface that may well cover a liquid ocean. With plenty of energy from nearby Jupiter, there could be life in the ocean. But the rover will have to tunnel down we-don’t-know-how-many kilometers of ice (which, I am told, is harder than granite at that temperature), and then become a submarine. Note that this is all way out of range of interactive control, likely out of any radio contact. Setting aside the question of autonomous software (I’ll lie to you and say, “sure, we know how to build such software”), how would the rover be designed? How would it get power (without any solar radiation)?
Well, Mason Peck and Robert Shepherd have some ideas. Paul Gilster runs through the array of concepts at Centauri Dreams.
First, they propose to “scavenge” electric power with a long tether. Variations of this idea have been tried, but using it in a submarine is interesting. They note that there is a very strong magnetic field near Jupiter, and the ocean might make even more power harvestable. (This is not my field, I have to take their word for this particular theory.)
Second, seeking a “swimming” robot, they look to bioinspired designs, and come up with something that looks like a lamprey eel. And elegant swimmer with very simple pneumatic actuators.
Third, to power the swimming, they suggest pressurized gas. This can be recharged by electrolyzing water into oxygen and hydrogen, which can be burned (exploded!) to power the swim. This might also be used as jet propulsion, a la mollusks.
Fourth, they would like the skin to be electroluminescent, a la octopus skin. This might be useful for lighting the area for visual sensing, or even for signaling any life encountered. And, as Evan Ackerman says, “because it’s awesome”.
Cool, cool stuff.