For as long as humans have known of the existence of other worlds, there has existed the question “Is there other life out in the universe?”. Astronomers have discovered planets light years away which could have the potential to host life similar to ours, but getting there is a whole other issue. However, the discovery of planets with liquid water or ice within our own solar system could mean that Earth is not the only place where life exists.
Europa, one of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, has an liquid ocean underneath its icy surface. A Cornell research group has developed an idea for a probe which could explore this sub-surface ocean.
Their “soft-robot” proposal recently won a grant of $100,000 dollars from NASA. These soft robots are designed to look more like a living organism – the proposed one for this mission looks like a squid – than something artificial as they are meant to move like a natural organism.
A researcher affiliated with the project, Rob Shepherd, has been studying the possibilities of soft machine building. One of the robots that he has worked on was built for search and rescue and can hold up against extreme elements, such as snow, fire, and being run over by a vehicle.
For the Europa project, Shepherd said that “it would be a good idea to make machines that swim like our own terrestrial ocean animals.”
The Cornell robot looks like an ancient Earth creature celled a lamprey, which are eel-like creatures. They’re good models for a swimming robot as they are fairly simple. The researchers are even using the lamprey’s mouth as inspiration for the rover’s opening which can be used to grab or anchor itself to things.
Even more interesting than the kind of rover is the proposed method of powering it. Engineering expert Mason Peck has said that the rover would have “tentacle-like structures that serve… as electrodynamic tethers to harvest power from locally changing magnetic fields.”
Harnessing this power would electrolyze water and turn it into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen gas. A spark would cause combustion and recombine the elements into water. This would make chambers within the rover inflate and deflate, which in turn would be used to propel the craft around the ocean. This technology, inspired through Earth biology, moves beyond the current rover technologies in which there are batteries, solar or nuclear power.
One more cool thing about the proposed rover: it’s going to be electroluminescent, meaning it will give off light due to an electric current. This light will illuminate the rover’s path and let scientists get images.
Scientists are hoping to learn about how Earth’s underwater life evolved the way it did, and also want to find more features that can be used in exploration such as the lamprey was, as they can prove more efficient than current man-made methods.