The space agency is gearing up to send the Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE) below Earth’s southernmost continent in the coming weeks. The two-wheeled robot will use buoyancy to anchor itself upside down on the ice to study the zone where the crust and the ocean interact. NASA hopes to eventually send the machine to search for alien life in the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Liquid water has been an essential ingredient for the development of life on Earth and there is a lot of evidence that suggests a vast salty ocean could be hiding below Europa’s icy crust.
Kevin Hand, lead scientist of the project said on Monday: “It presents an incredibly compelling place to go and search for possible life beyond Earth, potentially answering that age-old question ‘are we alone?’
“Within Europa’s ice shell, there are nutrients that life within that ocean might eat.
“Here on Earth, the ice covering our polar oceans serves a similar role, and our team is particularly interested in what is happening where the water meets the ice.”
Lead engineer, Andy Klesh, explained in more detail exactly what he hopes the robot will do.
He said in a statement: “We’ve found that life often lives at interfaces, both the sea bottom and the ice-water interface at the top.
“Most submersibles have a challenging time investigating this area, as ocean currents might cause them to crash, or they would waste too much power maintaining position.
“BRUIE, however, uses buoyancy to remain anchored against the ice and is impervious to most currents.
“In addition, it can safely power down, turning on only when it needs to take a measurement, so that it can spend months observing the under-ice environment.”
“Once we get there, we only really know how to detect life similar to that on Earth. So it’s possible that very different microbes might be difficult to recognise.”
The robot has already been tested in Alaska, but in the coming weeks, NASA will team up with the Australian Antarctic Program to drive BRUIE under the sea ice near Casey Station.
The team hopes that BRUIE will eventually be able to handle being in the icy water for months at a time without running out of power, which will be necessary for its mission to alien worlds.
NASA also hopes to send BRUI to Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn.
Earlier this year, Brian Cox revealed how NASA made “the greatest discovery of the century” when Cassini found water below the surface.
“What we found beneath Enceladus’ shell of ice must rank as one of the greatest discoveries in 21st century space exploration.
“But it was a discovery that had been hiding in plain sight.
“As Cassini approached Enceladus, the anomaly revealed itself.
“Giant plumes water vapour and ice were erupting from its surface.
“Over 200kg of material was being released every second.”