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NASA Unveils Giant Ice Cube With Wheels for Exploring Alien Oceans

An underwater rover might one day explore otherworldly seas

(NASA/JPL/Michael Benson/Kinetikon Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

From Europa to Enceladus, scientists have long agreed that the watery moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn might be the best places to find life elsewhere in the solar system. NASA has wrestled with figuring out how best to survey these moons, but thanks to a new prototype probe, researchers might soon gather information from rovers trundling about these extraterrestrial oceans.

Most rovers designed to explore other planets look kind of like cars, with big fat tires and treads for scrambling over rocky surfaces. But a new rover takes the opposite tact: designed for moons like Europa, which is covered in a thick sheet of ice. This Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE) might one day trundle along beneath the ice as its predecessors travelled along Mars’ surface, Becky Ferreira writes for Vice Motherboard.

“We thought, ‘oh well, we’ll just invert the surface,’” Dan Berisfold, an astrobiologist and member of BRUIE’s design team says in a new video by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Instead of having a rover that drives on the ground, we’ll have a rover that drives on the ceiling [...] which is the ice surface.”

As its name indicates, BRUIE is designed to float just under the surface level of the water, propelling itself underneath the ice with a pair of wheels while maintaining buoyancy. While early prototypes were controlled via cable, future versions of the rover will send data back to Earth through a remote receiver on the ocean’s surface, James O’Malley writes for Gizmodo.

While there are no current plans to send BRUIE on a mission into space, it has been busy gathering data on Earth’s own oceans as its developers test it out in the methane-rich waters near Barrow, Alaska.

“Our research up in the Arctic has this win-win,” astrobiologist Kevin Hand says in the video. “By studying the methane that’s trapped in these lakes and coming out of the permafrost, we’re helping to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions that are affecting climate change, while simultaneously building a vehicle and a scientific platform that serves as a precursor for something that may some day fly to Europa or Enceladus or one of the other moons that harbors an ocean.”

BRUIE might just be a prototype, but with NASA planning a Europa-bound exploratory mission for 2020, its descendants might very soon be exploring alien oceans.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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