NASA is testing robotic ice instruments

NASA is testing robotic ice instruments

The robotic claw is one of the new innovative tools developed in the LRD to study the icy ocean worlds, such as Europe.

Would you like to try your luck in ice fishing on the satellite of Jupiter Europe? There is no guarantee that you will catch something, but a new set of robotic prototypes will provide irreplaceable help.

Since 2015, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (LRD) of NASA in Pasadena (California) has been developing new technologies for use in future missions on oceanic planets. The list includes: an underground probe (capable of breaking through ice and collecting samples), robotic arms (turning around to get to distant objects) and a launcher (for even more distant samples).

All these technologies have been developed within the boundaries of the study of mobility and sensing of the oceanic worlds. Each prototype focuses on the extraction of samples from the surface or below the surface of the icy moon.

“In the future, we want to answer whether there is life on the satellites of the outer planets: Europe, Enceladus, and Titan,” said Tom Kvik, who heads the Aircraft Space Technologies Program. - “It is important to identify the specific systems that we must build now, so that in 10-15 years they will be ready for use on a spacecraft.”

Systems will have to plunge into extreme conditions. The temperature may drop to -100 ° C. The wheels of the rover will slide on the ice, resembling sand, and the surface of Europe is also generously seasoned with radiation. “There is a lot of trouble waiting for us, so we have to meet strict planetary protection requirements,” said Hari Nayar, who heads the robotics group. “The ultimate dream is to dive deep into the underground oceans. But this requires new technologies that are not yet available. ”

Brian Wilcox (design engineer of the LRD) was able to develop a prototype based on “melt probes” used on Earth. Since the late 1960s, they have been used to melt snow and ice in order to study subsurface areas.

The only problem is that they use heat inefficiently. The bark of Europe may be 10-20 km thick, so if the probe does not learn to control its energy, it will freeze before it reaches the goal.

Wilcox came up with a new idea: a vacuum-insulated capsule (reminiscent of the principle of a thermos). Instead of radiating heat out, it will hold the energy with a piece of thermal plutonium when the probe is immersed in ice.

The rotating saw blade on the bottom of the probe turns slowly and cuts through the ice. In doing so, he will collect ice shavings back into the body of the probe, where it is melted by plutonium and pumped out behind the apparatus. Removing the ice ensures that the probe does not encounter obstacles. Ice water can also be sent through a coil of aluminum tube and drain to the surface. Water samples can be checked for bio-signals. “We believe that ice flowing plates are located in the frozen crust of Europe,” Wilcox says. “These streams spew material from the ocean below. As the probe makes a tunnel, this water may contain biosignals ”.

To ensure the absence of terrestrial microbes, the probe heats up to 482 ° C during a flight on a spacecraft. This should destroy any residual organisms and decompose complex organic molecules that can affect scientific results.

Longer reach

Researchers also looked at the possibility of using robotic arms, which are necessary for obtaining samples. On Mars, NASA landings never went beyond 2-2,5 meters from the base. For greater distance, you need to create a longer arm.

One of the ideas is a folding shot lever. The deployed arm can reach almost 10 meters. For more distant targets, a launcher with projectiles was developed, capable of firing at a distance of up to 50 meters.

Hands and the launcher can be used in conjunction with the seizure of ice. To the claw can attach a diamond drill. If scientists want to get intact samples, then you need to punch up to 20 cm of ice surface. This layer must protect complex molecules from the radiation of Jupiter.

After deployment of an arrow or launcher for a projectile, the claw can be fixed, using heated pins that melt in the ice and strengthen the grip. This ensures that the drill can penetrate and collect samples.

Wheels for a cryo-rover

In July, NASA will celebrate the 20-year-old legacy of rovers traveling through the Martian desert. But for a trip to the icy satellite need modernization.

Enceladus has cracks that spew gas and ice jets. They would become the main scientific objectives, but the material around them is likely to be different from terrestrial ice. Tests have shown that granulated ice in cryogenic and vacuum conditions resembles sand dunes, with loose grains sucking in wheels. LRD researchers turned to projects that were previously used to move across the surface of the moon. They tested light commercial wheels mounted on a harness that was used in a number of missions.

In Perspective

Prototypes and experiments are just starting points. With the study of ocean structures, scientists will consider whether these inventions can be improved to the maximum. Ultimately, research can lead to the emergence of technologies capable of heading towards an external solar system.

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