He will spend next month testing his resistance at the Australian Casey research station in Antarctica, in preparation for a mission that could one day seek life in oceanic worlds beyond Earth.
It is believed that there are moons throughout the solar system covered by deep oceans hidden beneath thick and frozen surfaces. Scientists such as Kevin Hand, principal scientist of the JPL in the BRUIE project, believe that these lunar oceans, such as those of Jupiter’s Europa moon and Saturn’s Enceladus moon, may be the best places to seek life in our solar system.
But first, they will need a rugged water explorer capable of navigating alone through an alien ocean enclosed under layers of ice that could be 10 to 19 kilometers thick.
“The ice sheets that cover these distant oceans serve as a window to the ocean floor, and ice chemistry could help feed life within those oceans. Here on Earth, the ice that covers our polar oceans meets a similar function, and our team is particularly interested in what is happening where the water meets the ice,” said Hand.
“It is believed that there are moons throughout the solar system covered with deep oceans hidden beneath thick and frozen surfaces”
Antarctic waters are the closest terrestrial analogue to the seas of an icy moon, which makes them an ideal testing ground for BRUIE technology. 1 meter long and equipped with two wheels to roll under the ice, the floating rover can take pictures and collect data on the important region where water and ice meet, what scientists call the “ice-water interface”.
“We have discovered that life often lives at the interfaces, both at the bottom of the sea and at the interface of icy water at the top. Most submersibles have difficulty investigating this area, since ocean currents can do they crash or waste a lot of energy to maintain the position,” said lead engineer Andy Klesh.
“BRUIE, however, uses buoyancy to remain anchored against ice and is impervious to most currents. In addition, it can be turned off safely, turning on only when you need to take a measurement, so you can spend months observing the medium atmosphere under the ice”.
During several Antarctic field tests, the rover will remain attached to the surface while Hand, Klesh, mechanical engineer Dan Berisford and Western Australia University engineer Dan Arthur test their instrument cluster, including their two live HD cameras.
The floating rover can take pictures and collect data on the important region where water and ice meet
“BRUIE will carry several scientific instruments to measure parameters related to life, such as dissolved oxygen, water salinity, pressure and temperature,” said Berisford, who will attach the scientific instruments if the initial tests go well.
“Once we get there,” he added, “we only really know how to detect life similar to Earth’s. Therefore, it is possible that very different microbes are difficult to recognize.”
While the team has previously tested BRUIE in Alaska and the Arctic, this is the first rover test in Antarctica.
With the support of the Australian Antarctic Program, the crew will travel to the lakes and the coast near Casey Station, where it will drill holes in the ice to submerge BRUIE.
The team will continue to work at BRUIE until it can survive under the ice for months in a row, navigate remotely without anchors and explore the ocean at greater depths.
NASA is already working on the construction of the Clipper orbiter, which will be launched in 2025 to study Jupiter’s moon Europe, laying the groundwork for a future mission that could seek life under the ice.